NOW HIRING: Fall 2019 Operations & Communications Fellowships

Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus is seeking two motivated and responsible individuals to serve as Operations and Communications Fellows for the Fall 2019 semester. This is a great paid opportunity for those interested in working at the intersection of non-profit management and faith-based social justice work. Ideal applicants will be excited by the opportunity to help successfully develop and implement the operations and communications systems and structures for a growing and dynamic mission-driven organization. 

Prospective applicants should be passionate about our mission of empowering Hindu American communities to live out the values of their faith through service, community transformation, and targeted advocacy work. 

YOUR OPPORTUNITY

  • Learn about the internal workings of nonprofit management, logistics, fundraising, communications, and more! 

  • Help the members of our Executive Board through every stage of our programming and communications strategy, moving from conceptualization and goal-setting, to implementation and achievement. 

  • Create a process for planning, implementing, measuring, and evaluating our short-term and long-term progress.

  • Conduct in-depth product and process research to ensure we are choosing the most cost-efficient options for our organization.

QUALIFICATIONS

  • Ideal candidates will have at least an undergraduate degree, and be pursuing an advanced degree in either Public Policy, Non-Profit Management, Social Work, or another related field. Exceptionally driven and organized candidates with alternative backgrounds and experience are also encouraged to apply. 

  • Exemplify a strong commitment to Sadhana's mission and theory of change, which emphasizes service, community transformation, and advocacy. 

  • Highly organized and detail-oriented with the ability to handle time-sensitive administrative tasks. Must be self-directed and able to plan and coordinate multiple projects simultaneously.

  • Ability to write and speak clearly and effectively, and to interact with staff in a positive and professional manner.

  • Highly proficient in contemporary office software applications, including Google Docs, Asana, Slack, Mailchimp, Canva, etc.

*Applicants must be currently authorized to work in the United States on a full-time basis and must not now or in the future require sponsorship for employment-based visa status.

OPERATIONS FELLOWSHIP DUTIES

  • Maintain and organize database of supporters/funders, distribution lists, and update contact information. As directed, Fellows will help add to existing lists and help generate new lists in order to advance organizational goals.

  • Support day-to-day operations: drafting/sending emails, maintaining existing channels on Slack and Asana platforms, and providing additional suggestions for systems to help organize and streamline our work as an organization.

  • Researching funding and grant opportunities from philanthropic entities, government agencies, and other relevant sources.

  • Collaborate with Communications Fellow in developing an operational strategy and targeted prospective donor list for Sadhana’s 2019 Diwali fundraising campaign

COMMUNICATIONS FELLOW DUTIES

  • Compile daily press clips, monitor and collect press hits, outreach campaigns, and other examples of our work to be shared on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram).

  • Compile weekly e-newsletters to Sadhana’s members and press lists via Mailchimp

  • Assist with redesign of Sadhana’s website and marketing materials

  • Create posters and graphics for upcoming Sadhana events

  • Collaborate with Operations Fellow in developing a marketing plan for Sadhana’s 2019 Diwali fundraising campaign

  • Aid in long-term research projects relating to communication and marketing strategies for non-profits and faith-based organizations.

OTHER DETAILS

  • Location: Remote

  • This fellowship requires a time commitment of 20 hours per week.

  • Sadhana is willing to work with your university to secure school credit. This fellowship includes a stipend with a base pay of $15/hour.

  • We unfortunately cannot provide health benefits at this time. 

  • Fellowships are project-based, 3-month programs, starting in September 2019.

HOW TO APPLY

Please send a resume, one-page cover letter, and contact information for three references to info@sadhana.org. Applications will be due Friday, August 16th.

They Were Never Strangers to Us

by Sadhana’s LA coordinator and active member Tahil Sharma

Immigrant parents.
The refugee friend.
The asylum-seeking loved one.
The undocumented mentor.

I find it quite strange how the divisiveness of our language changes the context of each phrase. In our political discourse today, it’s the adjective in these phrases that cause discomfort — based on a variety of different circumstances — and leads to a domino effect of misplaced anger and frustration.

Centuries of this behavior — manifested by patterns of bigotry and violence, towards people seeking the same liberties and opportunities in life — can be rooted in words as simple as “go back to where you came from.” Why? Merely because there are dissenting opinions about the status quo we call injustice. Many who find themselves on our doorstep for safety are the very same ones we’ve caused to go through this ordeal. And yet our conveniences are threatened when history reminds us of the debts we owe to our “civilization” at the expense of others.

Now, look at the other side of these phrases. Parents, friends, loved ones, mentors. People who bring out the best in us and remind us that we aren’t alone in our journeys through this reality. They’re the shoulders for our sorrows, the smiles that bring joy, and often the causes of conflict that build our resilience. They are not perfect, and neither are you, but you’ve developed you’re perfection in this process. But we know that often when we hurt our own we feel flustered, we feel disappointed, and we feel like we must redeem ourselves and do more to correct what we’ve done wrong.

Now, what if I told you that you’ve read those first four phrases wrong? What if, instead of understanding those phrases as the English vernacular, we look at both the nouns and adjectives as synonyms?

In an abstract way, all those words can mean the same thing. My parents happen to be immigrants. I have friends that happen to be refugees. I have a loved one who I know to be an asylum seeker. And I have mentors who happen to be undocumented. Their experiences and journeys to find a better tomorrow do not exclude them from being the loving people that I call my own. This can be said about the thousands of people who come to the United States with the same dreams and opportunities, shattered by the very narrative that never allowed them a chance for survival here or at home.

People may argue what I’m saying is simply an opinion. Some may argue that it doesn’t speak for the propensity of chaos that might ensue. But when we affirm divisive language in a time where our lives are so intertwined with, and require the support of, the same people we choose to disavow for the sake of convenience, we deny our collective ability to thrive and prosper.

This is more than me speaking from a soapbox. This is my religious mandate as a Hindu and Sikh.

Practice truth, contentment and kindness; this is the most excellent way of life.
One who is so blessed by the Formless Lord God renounces selfishness, and becomes the dust of all.
— Guru Granth Sahib, Ang 51

One is a relative, the other stranger,
say the small-minded.
The entire world is a family,
live it beneficently.

Be detached,
be generous,
lift up your mind, enjoy
the fruit of Brahmanic freedom.
— Maha Upanishad 6.71–75

I am reminded daily by my own interfaith identity, and the scriptures from the array of religious and spiritual traditions that promote a legacy of service, that no one is or can be strange. I should strive to not just “get along” with everyone, — dismissing their woes out of the assumption that “getting along” is equivalent to “leaving alone” — but rather work to serve them as my own and strive for their justice.

I would even dare to go deeper. I would argue that the Divine Light present in all things makes me one with everything; I am the universe and the universe is Me. If that same Divine Light exists in all of creation, it means that those I see as strangers, even my enemies, are a reflection and a manifestation of my own light. What I may do to them will reflect on me and on the society that I belong to.

I cannot be a shining light myself if I dim the light of others. And I cannot keep my own light bright if I can’t help others. Instead of being the light at the end of the tunnel, I want to be the light that illuminates others and make this world better than what we were born into.

So let’s not play ignorant here. Thousands of people, men, women, children, the elderly, LGBTQ folks, and people of various worldviews are currently detained in privatized and government-run centers around the United States for pursuing freedom. It would be remiss to reflect on this and not think about what is says about me, a man of many privileges, if I were to not stand for what is right and do what I can to help those being systematically oppressed. This matter is of great moral and faithful urgency because it resounds the echos of travesties past and reminds me of what side of history I should be standing on. But, even then, it should also remind me of the deeds and actions I must show to God at the end of my life. I cannot do good merely to be rewarded; I must do good because it is right and just.

Air is the Guru, Water is the Father, and Earth is the Great Mother of all.
Day and night are the two nurses, in whose lap all the world is at play.
Good deeds and bad deeds; the record is read out in the Presence of the Lord of Dharma.
According to their own actions, some are drawn near, and some are sent far.
Those who have meditated on the Nām and departed after working by the sweat of their brows.
O Nanak, their faces are radiant in the Court of the Lord, and many are saved along with them!
— Closing Salok, Japji Sahib (SGGS 8)

This article was first published in Religica.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Sadhana Calls On NYPD to Investigate Attack of Swami Harish Chander Puri as a Hate Crime

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

July 21, 2019

Contact: Aminta Kilawan-Narine

718-300-4888

ackilawan@gmail.com

Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus

Sadhana Calls On NYPD to Investigate Attack of Swami Harish Chander Puri as a Hate Crime

Bigotry and xenophobia does not distinguish between Hindus and Muslims, or black or brown skin. When the US President targets immigrants and refugees and encourages chants of "send her back" at rallies, this results in real harm inflicted on our communities.

We are deeply heartbroken by reports of a brutal attack on Swami Harish Chander Puri Ji, priest of the Shiv Shakti Peeth temple in Glen Oaks, Queens, NY. Swami Puri Ji was attacked on Thursday at 11am by a man who reportedly screamed "this is my neighborhood." Just a few weeks ago, Queens was declared the nation’s most diverse large county according to a new study of 2017 census data. It is deplorable that in a place as diverse as Queens, such an atrocity can occur. 

Thankfully, Swami Puri Ji is recovering, and is praying for the man who attacked him. We stand with this compassionate warm-hearted leader and the Shiv Shakti Peeth community, and invite all of our interfaith and community allies in the Queens / New York City area to do so as well.

We, Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus, and the undersigned community partners and faith leaders, call upon the New York Police Department to conduct a swift investigation of this brutal attack against such a loving leader. The remarks uttered by Swami Puri Ji’s attacker are a blatant example of hate speech. Thus, we urge the NYPD to investigate this matter as a hate crime. 

May justice be served, and may love prevail over this hate we are seeing here and all over the country. We all belong here! 

oṃ dyauḥ shāntir-antarikṣaṃ shāntiḥ
pṛthivī shāntir-āpaḥ shāntir-oṣadhayaḥ shāntiḥ
vanaspatayaḥ shāntir-vishvedevāḥ shāntir-brahma shāntiḥ
sarvaṃ shāntiḥ shāntir-eva shāntiḥ sā mā shāntiredhi
Oṃ shāntiḥ shāntiḥ shāntiḥ
-- Yajur Veda

Unto The Heavens Be Peace,
Unto The Sky And The Earth Be Peace.
Peace Be Unto The Water,
Unto The Herbs And Trees Be Peace.
Unto All The Gods Be Peace,
Unto Brahma And Unto All Be Peace.
And May We Realize That Peace.
Om. Peace, Peace, Peace.

Aminta Kilawan-Narine, Sunita Viswanath, Davanie Singhroy, Samir Durvasula, Nikhil Mandalaparthy, Udit Thakur and Gautham Reddy
Executive Board of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus

Community and Faith-Based Signatories (So far):

Pandit Manoj Jadubans, Spiritual Leader, Shaanti Bhavan Mandir

Ravina Vibart, Sadhana advisory board member and leader of Shaanti Bhavan Mandir

Pandit Mahendranauth Doobay, Bhavaanee Maa Mandir INC, Brooklyn 

Pratima Doobay, Sadhana resident pandita and community activist 

Pandit Tillackdharry Seerattan, Shri Devi Mandir, Jamaica NY

Ma Mokshapriya Shakti Saraswati, Ma Yogashakti International Mission

Hemant Wadhwani, Hindu American Seva Communities 

Pandit Ganeshwar Ramsahai, Hindu spiritual leader 

Himanshu "Heems" Suri, Artist/Activist

Shrestha Singh, Sadhana advisory board member and Hindu community leader

Dr. Anantanand Rambachan, Sadhana advisory board member and Professor of Religion, Philosophy and Asian Studies at Saint Olaf College

Shana Sippy, Assistant Professor of Religion at Centre College, and Research Associate and Co-Director of The Religious Diversity in MN Initiative, Carleton College

Dr. Jeffery D. Long, Professor of Religion and Asian Studies, Elizabethtown College

Pandita Varuna Padma Sahabir, Hindu community leader

Dr. Satish Prakash, Maharshi Dayananda Gurukul

Vijah Ramjattan, Sadhana advisory board member and Founder and President, United Madrassi Association

Pandit Satish Deo, Hindu priest 

Swami Shiveshwarananda, Administrator, American Sevashram Sangha

Shekar Krishnan, Jackson Heights Hindu community activist

Dave Kutayiah, Chairman, The Shri Shakti Mariammaa Temple & The Shakti Mission; Adjunct Professor, School of Business at Mercy College

Chandra Ramsammy, Secretary, The Shri Shakti Mariammaa Temple & President of The Shakti Mission

Perley Kutayiah, President, The Shri Shakti Mariammaa Temple

Zaheer Gobindpersaud, Co-Treasurer, The Shakti Mission

Parbatti Kalu, Board Member, The Shakti Mission

Anita Kutayiah – Founder & Board Member - The Shakti Mission

Inram Kalu, Board Member, The Shri Shakti Mariammaa Temple

Hilda Thamman, Board Member, The Shri Shakti Mariammaa Temple & The Shakti Mission

Rob Kutayiah, Board Member, The Shri Shakti Mariammaa Temple & The Shakti Mission

Ron Rashid, Member, The Shri Shakti Mariammaa Temple & The Shakti Mission

Uvika Kutayiah, Board Member, The Shri Shakti Mariammaa Temple & The Shakti Mission

Vikas Menon, Advisory Board Member Kundiman and Sadhana member

Amit Lucia Mehta, Member, Board of Directors, First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn, Brooklyn, NY, and Sadhana member

John Thatamanil, Sadhana advisory board member and Associate Professor of Theology and World Religions at Union Theological Seminary

Swami Vedanand Saraswati, Spiritual Head Arya Samaj South Africa

Lori Narine, President, SHEA Charity, Floral Park, NY

Pandit Dipak A. Rambharose, Hindu Spiritual Leader

Kathie Noga, Hindu Blogger, Shri Gaayatri Mandir Musician & Board Member of Minneapolis Theosophical Society 

Roli Khare, Hindu community activist, attorney, and board member at SABANY

Sri Raja Gopal Bhattar, Sri Vaishnava Pandit

Neelima Shukla-Bhatt, Associate Professor in South Asia Studies, Wellesley College, Wellesley MA

The Rev. Kaji S. Dousa, Senior Pastor, Park Avenue Christian Church

The Rev. Dr. Jacqueline J. Lewis, Senior Minister, Middle Collegiate Church

The Rev. Amanda Hambrick Ashcraft, Executive Minister, Middle Collegiate Church

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah

Marc Greenberg, Executive Director, Interfaith assembly on homelessness and housing

Simran Jeet Singh, Sikh Community Leader

The Rev. Dr. Clyde Kuemmerle, Executive Director, Ecclesia Ministries of New York

Rev. Dr. Karyn Carlo, American Baptist Churches

Rabbi Michael Feinberg, Executive Director, Greater New York Labor -Religion Coalition

Rev. Dr. Katharine Rhodes Henderson, President, Auburn Seminary

Rev. Dr. Samuel Cruz Trinity Lutheran Church

Dr. Mohamed Hack, Muslim Community Leader

Rev. Dr. Damaris Whittaker, Senior Minister, Fort Washington Collegiate Church

Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor, Tikkun magazine

Rabbi Hara Person, Central Conference of American Rabbis 

Rev. Ana Levy-Lyons, Senior Minister, First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn, Brooklyn, NY

Debbie Almontaser, Muslim Community Network

Aniqa Nawabi, Muslim Community Network

Jonathan Soto, Associate Vice President of Strategic Initiatives, Union Theological Society

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights

Naheed Samadi Bahram, Program Director, Women for Afghan Women

David Aviles, United Clergy Task Force

Daisy Khan, Executive Director, Women's Islamic Initiative for Spirituality and Equality (WISE)

Rev. Rafael Reyes, Ph.D, Assistant Professor in Theology and Religious Studies, Director of Information Literacy and Library Services; Co-editor, Journal of World Christianity, New York Theological Seminary

Afaf Nashar, Executive Director, Council on American Islamic Relations-NY

Rabbi Dr. Barat Ellman

S.Q.Masood, Centre for Peace Studies, India

Ahmed Mohamed, Council on American Islamic Relations-NY

Rabbi Justus Baird, Shalom Hartman Institute

Masuda Sultan, Founding board member, Women for Afghan Women 

Dr. Naeem Baig, Moderator, Religions for Peace - USA

Dr. Tarunjit Singh Butalia, Trustee, Sikh Council for Interfaith Relations

Garnett R. Losak, Director of Congregational Life, First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn, Brooklyn, NY

Sunny Jain, Artist/Activist

Ahsan Khan, National President, Indian American Muslim Council

The Rev. Bishop Dr. Raymond H. Rufen-Blanchette, Chairman, The Clergy Campaign for Social and Economic Justice

Barza Diaz, Director of NY Chapter, Muslims for Progressive Values

The Rev. Marie A. Tatro, Episcopal Diocese of Long Island

Annetta Seecharan, Executive Director, Chhaya CDC

Russ Jennings, host of Love in a Dangerous Time podcast

Martha Eddy, Advisory Council, Micah Institute

Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis , Director, Kairos Center; Co-Chair, Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival

Rabbi Alissa Wise, Deputy Director, Jewish Voice for Peace

Amina Mohamed Darwish, Muslim Community Leader

Jahajee Sisters: Empowering Indo-Caribbean Women

Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay, Associate Dean, Jewish Theological Seminary

The Rev. Elizabeth G. Maxwell, Rector, Church of the Ascension, NYC

Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, Senior Vice President, Auburn Seminary

Ani Zonneveld, Founder and President, Muslims for Progresive Values

Dr. Diane Steinman, Director, NYS Interfaith Network for Immigration Reform

Rev. Thia Reggio, Pastor, Astoria First Presbyterian Church

Rev. Traci D. Blackmon, Associate General Minister, Justice & Local Church Ministries, The United Church of Christ

Stosh Cotler, Chief Executive Officer, BEND THE ARC: A Jewish Partnership for Justice & BEND THE ARC Jewish Action

Rabbi Sharon Brous, Senior/ Founding Rabbi, IKAR

Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, CA

Rev. Dr. Raymond Rivera, President/Senior Pastor, Latino Pastoral Action Center

Eugena Simpson, Co-Chair Community Coalition on Mental Health

Rev. Dr. Chloe Breyer, Executive Director, Interfaith Center of New York

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, Executive Vice President, New York Board of Rabbis

Rabbi Lester Bronstein, President, New York Board of Rabbis

Rabbi Stephanie Kolin, Union Temple of Brooklyn

Mohamed Q. Amin, LGBTQ & Immigrant Rights Activist and Founder of Caribbean Equality Project

John Choe, Flushing Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, Secretary, Flushing Interfaith Council

Asian American Federation

Rev. Joel A. Gibson, Director of the Micah Institute 

Dr. Gwendolyn Hadley-Hall, Associate Pastor Christ Temple United Baptist Church

Rabbi Bob Kaplan, Director, The Center for Community Leadership, Jewish Community Relations Council of New York

The South Asian Bar Association of New York

Lisa Sharon Harper, President and Founder, FreedomRoad.us

Rev. Dr. LaKeesha Walrond, President, New York Theological Seminary

Dr. Pankaj Jain, Associate Professor, Dept of Philosophy and Religion

Co-chair, India Initiative Group, University of North Texas

Andrea Pinkney, Associate Professor, McGill University

Dr. Jennifer B. Saunders, author, Imagining Religious Communities: Transnational Hindus and Their Narrative Performances (OUP, 2019)

Nathaniel Roberts, Research Fellow, Centre for Modern Indian Studies, University of Göttingen

Loriliai Biernacki, Associate Professor, Department of Religious Studies, University of Colorado at Boulder

Dr. Brian A. Hatcher, Packard Chair of Theology, Tufts University, Medford, MA

Dr. T. Ramachandran, Director, Religion and Public Engagement
Associate Teaching Professor, Department for the Study of Religions, Wake Forest University

Linda Hess, Senior Lecturer Emerita, Stanford University

Joel Lee, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Williams College

Professor Rita D. Sherma, PhD | Director & Professor, The Shingal Center for Dharma Studies, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA

Rev. Jon Paul Sydnor, PhD, Emmanuel College, Boston

Rev. Micah Bucey, Minister, Judson Memorial Church

Dr. Chad Bauman, Professor of Religion, Butler University

Joel Bordeaux, Visiting Scholar, Mattoo Center for India Studies, Stony Brook University

Antoinette (Anita) Denapoli, Associate Professor of Religion, TCU

Andrew J. Nicholson, Associate Professor of Hinduism and Indian Intellectual History, Stony Brook University

Guru Purnima: Finding the Teachers Around Us and Within Us

by Sadhana member Hari Venkatachalam 

Guru: Dispelling Darkness through Action

The syllable Gu indicates darkness, the syllable Ru means its dispeller,

Because of the quality of dispelling darkness, the Guru is thus termed.

- Advayataraka Upanishad

                  The word Guru has become a universally recognized term. In English, it has become a passive term, referring to an individual who carries with them a great deal of knowledge. This is illustrated by its common use in many expressions, such as “business guru.” Even Forbes Magazine releases lists of influential “business and management gurus” across the world.

                  I can appreciate words entering foreign languages and molding themselves to take on unique meanings in their new social and cultural context. However, I do feel that there has been an aspect of the original Sanskrit term that has been lost in translation. Not just in translation from Sanskrit to the various Indian and non-Indian languages, but in translation over years of time from its original meaning to its modern usage.

A Guru is not just a passive personality; They are a “doer.” The word Guru was described in ancient texts as one who removes (“-ru”) the defect of ignorance (“Gu-“). The active definition of this word carries with it rich meaning: A Guru is a warrior of the human conscience and a champion of our principles.

In many ways, we all already know this is what a Guru is. As we dig into our past and we consider the names of the teachers who stand out from the crowd, rarely do we think of passive figures. We think of those who seized our minds with their words, who lived their truths through their actions, and who shared their worldview in such a convincing manner that it became our worldview.

On this Guru Purnima, I want you to consider the characteristics that make use see certain individuals as our “Gurus.” Can we describe characters from our scriptures as our Gurus? What about our parents, our friends, and our actual teachers? What about ourselves?     

Eklavya: The Self as a Guru

Who is better able to know God than I myself, since He resides in my heart and is the very essence of my being? Such should be the attitude of one who is seeking.

- Katha Upanishad

                  One of the most well-known teachers in the rich tapestry of Hindu literature is Drona. He is so highly regarded that his name is molded with Sandhi to form his widely recognized name: “Dronacharya,” meaning “the teacher Drona.” While Dronacharya’s wisdom and might are highly regarded in Hindu culture, he also faces a great deal of criticism, especially when it came to his treatment of the character Eklavya.

                  In the Mahabharatha, Eklavya is a young archer who is rejected as a student by Dronacharya due to what Drona perceived as his inferior lineage. Not deterred by this rejection, Eklavya built a statue of Dronacharya from mud and taught himself archery. At one point, Dronacharya comes across the skills of Eklavya and realizes that Eklavya’s skills surpass those of any other archer. Dronacharya, worried of the repercussions of such a skilled archer, demanded Guru Dakshina, or a fee. For his fee, he requested Eklavya’s right thumb. Eklavya, humble and dutiful, offered his thumb to Dronacharya and therefore disabled his archery skills for the rest of his life.

                  When I first read the story of Eklavya, I was filled with indignation. Hindu epics are filled with many individuals whose virtues and faults left them as gray-shaded characters, distinct from the dichotomies of “hero” and “villain.” At that moment, all of Drona’s teachings of Dharma, or righteousness, of responsibility, were reduced to dust by his pettiness and cruelty. Drona’s actions themselves find condemnation in the scriptures. Folklore abounds with tales of Goddess Saraswati cursing Drona with a shameful death for failing to perform his duty as a Guru.  

                  What also bothered me was that Dronacharya had no right to even claim “Guru Dakshina” from Eklavya. Dronacharya, as a passive figure who possesses knowledge but refuses to share it, is a Guru in many ways like the modern usage of the term Guru. In terms of Eklavya’s training in becoming a great archer, he is just a statue. He does not perform his actions as a teacher; he dispels neither darkness nor ignorance.

                  But in Eklavya’s story, there is a figure that performs the role of Guru. This figure performs the role with such prowess that Eklavya’s skills outstrip Arjuna, the most famous archer in Hindu literature. The Guru is Eklavya himself.

                  Coming from a rich heritage of Guru-Sisya, or teacher-student relationships, it is often easy to forget that sometimes we have much to learn from ourselves. There are lessons we can learn from our mistakes, from our conscience, from our sense of humanity, from our core beliefs. Some of the greatest activists of the past 100 years did not necessarily act under the instructions of others.  Rosa Parks, Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, and Malala Yousafzai all may have been inspired by the works of others, but in many ways, they acted as their own Gurus, shaping their own destinies.

Seeking Gurus Outside One’s Self

The mark of wisdom is to discern the truth
From whatever source it is heard.

– Kural 423, Thirukkural

                  From the countless adults who supported me, taught me, and shaped me when I was growing up, there is one man that specifically stands out in my mind. He was a Hindu religious teacher who used to run a local community group called “Story Hour” in my small central Pennsylvanian community. He was our beloved Storyteller.

Every other week, we would all gather in the basements of various homes throughout my community. I still remember how the sounds of socialization and children playing would fade as he closed eyes and began chanting Sanskrit mantras, indicating that it was time for him to begin his stories. Over the years, he would share countless stories from the Hindu scriptures with my family and other families in my hometown. His knowledge was immense, and he performed his role as a storyteller with grace. He weaved jokes into his tales leaving the children in giggles, but also incorporated stories from his life and his experiences; including the horrors of Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujurat, and the heroism of rare common folk who stood up against the violence.

                  His role as a “Guru” stuck with me over the years. I turned to lessons that he had shared from my childhood when I faced obstacles in my life. Not surprisingly, years later when I came out of the closet to my family and my community, he was one of the first people that I reached out to. It was a difficult time in my life, and I often felt weighed down by the heaviness of cruel words and cutting accusations.

                  During that time, I didn’t need the passive figure of a Guru; I needed a Doer. In that way, his support during that time was invaluable. It built my confidence to face adversity. It removed the darkness of loneliness. 

Honor the Gurus Who Teach Through Action

Let a man learn thoroughly whatever he may learn,

and let his conduct be worthy of his learning.

– Kural 391, Thirukkural

These Gurus, whether they be Eklavya or my storyteller in my home town all share one important characteristic. They live the definition of the word "Guru." Today Hindus all across the world will honor their teachers with gifts. I hope you celebrate this holiday, not with hollow gestures, but with introspection into your past and into your holy books.

Remember those people who were not just conveyors of knowledge, but who inspired through their actions, and acted with that knowledge. Don’t forget to consider how the most important Guru may rest not outside us, but in our hearts.

To all those Gurus, my Pranaam. For all those Gurus who have shaped the lives of others, even if it is just one life, I’ll leave with one last quote. It is from the Saint Tyagaraja in one of his famous Pancharatna Telugu Krithis “Endaro mahaanubhavulu, Andariki Vandanamulu.” “To all the many great men of the world, my salutations.”

 

Jai Shri Ram, Jai Hanuman: Chants of Love and Peace in Taos, NM

by Sadhana cofounder Sunita Viswanath

Neem Karoli Baba Ashram in Taos, NM, is an idyllic ashram and Hanuman mandir in the quiet town of Taos, in the foothills of the Sangre de Christo mountain range.  Neem Karoli Baba, affectionately called Maharaji or Babaji by his devotees, lived in India from 1900 to 1973, and was a Hanuman bhakt. He started a number of ashrams in India. This ashram in Taos is the only one outside India.  His philosophy can be summarized in the quotes, “Sab ek,” (all are one) and “Love everyone, serve everyone, feed everyone, remember God.”


IMG-4224.JPG

I first came here to this ashram and mandir 24 years ago, and during the past 11 years, I have come every summer. On a weekend morning, you will find a sizeable group of devotees gathered in the mandir before the beautiful marble Hanuman who looks as if he is about to take flight. The devotees, very few of them of Indian origin, chant the Hanuman chalisa from memory.  The singing is spirited, and full of bhakti and love. After 108 Chalisas, there is a vegetarian lunch for everyone.  

This ashram manifests the values and mission of Sadhana. Everyone is welcome, regardless of race, caste, gender and sexuality. Everyone is welcome to lead the chalisas and prayers; we can all go right up to the murthi and take our blessings from Hanumanji. There are no disposable plates and cutlery. Meals are served on steel plates which everyone helps to wash. And most of the vegetables are grown in the ashram's organic garden.  A popular item sold at the mandir dukan (store) is an apron that says, “Feed Everyone.” Indeed, the weekends often bring more than 150-200 devotees from as far as Texas and Colorado, and everyone has lunch together. During the financial crisis of 2007-9, the ashram provided meals regularly for 100s of people in Taos.

I was at the ashram last Sunday, when Lord Hanumanji moved into the new temple space. It was a huge celebration. There was a havan for Hanumanji, and chanting of Hanuman Chalisa for many hours.  The chants of Jai Shri Ram and Jai Hanuman filled my heart with peace and happiness tinged with the deep sadness of the knowledge of the pain all around. 

I remembered Tabrez Ansari, one of several Muslims in India who were recently beaten to death while being forced to chant Jai Shri Ram and Jai Hanuman.

I took the opportunity of this special day to ask a few of the devotees what the salutations Jai Shri Ram and Jai Hanuman means to them.

Here is what they shared with me: 

Punya

The center of our ashram is Jai Guru Dev.

I actually wasn’t crazy about Ram. Particularly because of the way he treated Sita. But then over the years I realized that Baba loved him. Baba wrote his name over and over, and chanted it. Here at our ashram, Jai Shri Ram is not a war cry. Rather, it is a cry of wholesomeness and forgiveness. We claim Ram this way: we can be good, no matter what.  We can make the choice to be good rather than give pain to others. That’s the Ram I love.

There is suffering, but Ram made the choice to take the pain away from others and take it on himself. That’s what I love. 

Rama really is for everyone. The story goes like this.

Valmiki was originally thief and a killer named Ratnakar. Some sages that he tried to rob reasoned with him, and he wanted to change his ways. The sages advised him to chant Rama’s name, but he refused to say Rama. He believed saying Rama’s name was a sin, because he had lived a life of wrongdoings. The sages said, don’t worry, just say mara mara mara mara (killed, killed killed, killed). And so Ratnakar sat in penance chanting mara mara mara, which of course became Rama Rama Rama. After many years, ants built their anthill all around him.

Some sages were passing by, and they heard the chanting of Rama Rama coming from an anthill. They pulled apart the anthill and found Ratnakar inside, deep in meditation. They named him Valmiki (which means anthill), and he went on to become a great sage and poet.

Hanuman Ji helped me sleep when I was scared at night as a child. My mother asked us to chant Bajrang Bali’s name. That always stayed in my heart. Hanuman unfolds in so many stories in the vernacular. He is available to us. There is no limit to Hanumanji’s love. 

Mukesh

Ram is the name of God, and uttering is makes us happy and peaceful. I live in Texas but I come here whenever I can because I find great peace here in this ashram. What does Jai Shri Ram mean? It means: Give us good thoughts, positive thoughts. Give us peace of mind.

Dhara

Ram Ram. Jai Shri Ram. Jai Siya Ram.

It feels so good to say, The feel of the tongue on the back of the teeth, and the beautiful sound of these words – it all gives me an ecstatic feeling.

This is how we greet each other at the ashram: Ram Ram. Sita Ram. Jai Shri Ram.

When I say it, I pull it out from my heart. It is an internal practice as well as an external offering of gratitude.

Jai Hanuman – for me, this is a celebration. The reason why we all get together here. An expression of joy.

Alistair

Jai Shri Ram. Or Ram Ram.

This is pure intent, full commitment, a wholesomeness and light.

It is calming and centering.

It is always there in our heart and mind. Not separate from us.

Jai Shri Ram is the heart’s intent projected and manifested.

Hanuman for me is giving. Abundance. Unconditional generosity.

Meem

Chanting Jai Shri Ram and Jai Hanuman is a higher way to honor the Guru. My heart gets filled with the love I have experienced in this Hindu and Hindu-inspired community in the middle of Taos.

Sarah

Rama means Rama and Sita. I heard this at one of Ammaji’s (Mata Amritanandamayi) programs: If you say Ram Ram Ram Ram, you will find yourself saying Ma Ma Ma Ma.  Ram is also called Sitaram. The Hanuman Chalisa invokes him as Siya Vara Ramchandra, the husband of Sita. When Hanuman opened his chest, there were both Rama and Sita within.

Anandi

Ram ji is the vibration of love in the heart.

Ram ji is unconditional love and acceptance.

Neem Karoli Baba gave us a way to see the divine fully – through all our paap (sin) and punya (good acts), everything.  Babaji and Ram ji, they can see transparently through everything, right to our soul, and they love us after all that.

Hanumanji represents service. He serves Ramji and inspires us to love everyone, serve everyone. That’s all I know.

It is bittersweet to hear these beautiful reflections on Rama, Sita and Hanuman, knowing that these same deities are being invoked during abominable acts of violence.  I fill my heart with the hope that comes through from the reflections of these devotees.  

Open Letter to Mr. Niraj Shah, Co-founder and CEO, Wayfair

 

Dear Niraj bhai,

In his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stated, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

It is clear that you and your wife Jill resonate with these profound words. You have given generously of your money, time, and effort to build a private foundation which addresses poverty, children’s education, and social needs in the Boston area. 

We are members of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus. For the past eight years, we have worked to inspire and mobilize Hindu communities in the United States to connect their faith to humanitarian seva (service) in the world. We salute you for your noble philanthropic efforts.

We are writing regarding media reports that your company Wayfair has procured a $200,000 contract with BCFS, a firm that works with the US government to house detained migrant adults and children along the US-Mexico border.  

As Hindus and scholars and practitioners of Hindu traditions who share your concern about poverty and human suffering, and your demonstrated commitment to addressing it, we hope you will reconsider Wayfair’s involvement in the humanitarian crisis at our US-Mexico border.

By immigrating to the United States from India, your parents were able to carve out a path for you to succeed in life. That path is being closed to increasing numbers of immigrants searching for that same opportunity.  Please try and imagine the extreme trauma and crises -- war and conflict, gang violence and terrorism, religious persecution, and the dire consequences of climate change -- that must be driving so many families to flee their home countries in Africa, Middle East, Asia (with increasing numbers of migrants fleeing India), and Central and South America to arrive at the Southern border. 

Selling furniture to the government for detention centers and other border facilities is tantamount to being an accomplice to the inhumane policies of the United States government towards the migrant families. We have seen the separation of children, even babies, from their parents. We have seen parents detained for many months, without any knowledge of where their children have been sent. We have seen images of children in cages—children who do not know where their parents are. We have seen parents deported back to their home countries while their children remain in the US, languishing in foster care.

Most recently, we have seen unspeakable tragedies: the death from dehydration of a 6-year old Indian girl in the Arizona desert, while her mother went to find water; and the deaths by drowning of a Salvadoran father and his toddler daughter.

Rather than participate in the United States government’s cruel border policies, we implore you to cancel your business dealings with them.  

Your foundation website shares that if you could wave a magic wand, you “would wipe out inefficiency in government and society,” and “erase poverty.” And Mrs. Shah would want everyone to feel “truly, confidently loved.”

Mr. Shah, the migrants who arrive at our shores are fleeing terrifying situations which are not of their making. We Sadhana members, your brothers and sisters, invite you to be in dialogue and community with us. Together, we can draw on the wisdom and teachings of our traditions, and build a world in which all children are, “truly, confidently loved.” We call upon you to remember:

  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of the “beloved community,” which is none other than the Hindu vision of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” (the world is one family)

  • The Hindu teaching, “Atithi Devo Bhava,” which calls on us to see God in every guest, every foreigner, every person who is different from ourselves

  • The principle of ahimsa (non-violence and non-harming) that is central to Hinduism.

Your brave workers are mirroring the very same values that you and Mrs. Shah represent through your philanthropy: they are sacrificing their job security to urge you to think of the wellbeing of migrant children and families. 

Ending Wayfair’s contracts with BCFS will be an act of moral courage and self-sacrifice on your part, and a much-needed example to the world. 

In addition, we ask that you listen to the demands of your employees, who risked their jobs to voice their concerns, and donate any profits that you have already made from these contracts to RAICES, an organization that supports migrants and works to fight the human rights violations at the ICE-operated detention centers.

By refusing to benefit materially from the suffering of these poor people, and by bringing global awareness to their plight, you will be acting as an empathetic parent, a true humanitarian, and a true Hindu.

Namaste and dhanyavaad,

Sadhana executive board members: Sunita Viswanath, Aminta Kilawan, Davanie Singhroy, Samir Durvasula, Nikhil Mandalaparthy, Udit Thakur, Gautham Reddy

Sadhana advisors and colleagues (institutional affiliations listed are for reference only):

Dr. Anantanand Rambachan, Professor of Religion, Philosophy and Asian Studies at Saint Olaf College

Dr. Jeffery D. Long, Professor of Religion & Asian Studies, Elizabethtown College

Vineet Chander, Coordinator for Hindu Life and Hindu Chaplain at Princeton University 

Dr. Shana Sippy, Assistant Professor of Religion at Centre College, and Research Associate and Co-Director of The Religious Diversity in MN Initiative, Carleton College

Sri Raja Gopal Bhattar, Sri Vaishnava Pandit

Swami Agnivesh, Indian human rights activist and spiritual leader

Dr. John Thatamanil, Associate Professor of Theology and World Religions at Union Theological Seminary 

Shrestha Singh, Hindu scholar and spiritual guide

Sanjukta Paul, Assistant Professor of Law at Wayne State University

Dave Kutayiah, Chairman, Shri Shakti Mariamman Temple

Sapthagiri Iyengar, Sadhana active member and community organizer

Vijah Ramjattan, Founder and President, United Madrassi Association

Tahil Sharma, Sadhana active member and interfaith activist

Punya Upadhyaya, Ph.D, Gurubhakt and Ashram Trustee, Taos, NM

Hindus of Conscience: Our Time is Now!

Over five hundred years ago, the Gujarati poet-saint Narsi Mehta penned these immortal words: Vaishnav jan to tene kahiye je peed paraayi jaane re. "Call that person a Vaishnava, who understands the pain of others."

Today, more than ever, we as Hindus must heed this reminder. Please consider making a donation to Sadhana to build a Hindu voice for justice.

The results of the recent Indian elections may be a great disappointment for Hindus who believe in an India that celebrates diversity and that is welcoming to all. But it is important for us to consider our non-Hindu sisters and brothers first, many of whom may be terrified by the outcome of this election.

Be they Muslims or Christians, Dalits or Adivasis, atheists or believers, it is the duty of every Hindu to stand up for the rights of their fellow human beings. For too long, we have allowed the voices of intolerance to carry the mantle of our faith. But this election should send a message that is loud and clear to every Hindu of conscience.

This is our struggle.

It’s time we summon the courage and imagination necessary to provide a vision of Hindu identity and faith that honors the values of truth, nonviolence, oneness, and that embraces and celebrates the diversity and dignity of democratic life for all.

Sadhana is one of the only Hindu organizations in the world to publicly stand against Hindu nationalism: in the United States and in India. As Hindus who firmly believe in the values of ekatva (oneness), ahimsa (nonviolence), and seva (service), it is our dharma to oppose bigotry and injustice, especially if it comes from our own communities. We must try our best, as Narsi Mehta reminds us, to "understand the pain of others."

However, we can't do this work without you.

  • Please consider making a donation to Sadhana today.

  • Join Sadhana today as a member by emailing info@sadhana.org. We have chapters all over the United States and the world.

  • Additionally, please share the following images on social media, with the hashtag #HindusAgainstHindutva

Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti. Om Peace, Peace, Peace.

Sadhana Board

Sadhana's Statement On 2019 Indian Election

This result is a great disappointment for Hindus that believe in an India that celebrates diversity, and that is welcoming to all. But it is important for us to consider our non-Hindu sisters and brothers first, many of whom are likely terrified by the outcome of this election. Be they Muslim or Christian, Dalit or Adivasi, atheist or believer, it is the duty of every Hindu to stand up for the rights of their fellow man and woman. For too long we have allowed the voices of intolerance to carry the mantle of our faith, and pettiness and false pride have come to replace true piety and service. But this election should send a message that is loud and clear to every Hindu of conscience. This is our struggle, and it’s time we summon the courage and imagination necessary to provide a vision of Hindu identity and faith that honors the values of truth, nonviolence, oneness, and that embraces and celebrates the diversity and dignity of democratic life for all.

Om Shakti, Om Satya, Om Shanti

Statement on Alabama's Abortion Ban

On Tuesday night, Alabama’s state legislature passed a bill which bans abortion in almost all cases--including rape and incest. This cruel bill is the most restrictive in the country, with abortion being banned in all cases except for those in which the mother’s life is in danger. Supporters of this move claim that this aligns with their belief that “all life is sacred.”

However, this law would disregard the safety and quality of life of all women and men who can get pregnant. It shows no concern for the lives of rape victims, those in abusive relationships, those with mental illness, those living in poverty, those on medications, those without access to proper healthcare...the list goes on and on. This bill seems to only care about the wellbeing of fetuses and not sentient human beings. History shows that abortion will happen, regardless of what the law dictates. Bans like this will only eliminate safe abortions done by medical professionals and will lead to an increase in backstreet abortions which are dangerous and often prove to be fatal.

In light of these recent attacks on Americans’ reproductive rights and bodily autonomy, Sadhana would like to reiterate that we are staunchly pro-choice and believe that abortion is a decision that should only involve pregnant persons and their medical providers. Lawmakers with no medical or scientific background have no right to enforce laws that interfere with these decisions. And seeing as the United States is not a theocracy, it is unconstitutional to enact laws solely because they reflect the religious beliefs of a particular group. The 1973 Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade guaranteed Americans the right to abortion without undue burden, and therefore this bill is stripping the people of their constitutional rights. 

As progressive Hindus, laws that attempt to interfere in extremely personal issues such as abortion go against our spiritual values. Hinduism is a varied religion with many scriptures and different schools of thought. There are differing beliefs on which point during pregnancy life enters the embryo, as well as what circumstances justify abortion. While many groups are personally against abortion, they do not attempt to bring their beliefs into the political arena. They believe the decision to follow or deviate from the path of dharma, and to incur good or bad karma, is up to the individual.

Additionally, they acknowledge that abortion is a reality that will continue to occur regardless of the laws that are in place. They advise that the option that causes the least amount of harm to both the parent and the child should be chosen. However, this is highly subjective and varies from case to case. A blanket ban on abortion ignores the reality that every individual seeking abortion has different circumstances than the next. 

For these reasons, Sadhana stands with organizations like Planned Parenthood and the ACLU who plan to challenge this bill in court, and we plan to fight to protect the people’s rights over their own bodies.

Picture credit: Arunabho via Pinterest

2019 Mother's Day Reflection

By Sadhana advisory board Dr. Anantanand Rambachan (Professor of Religion, St. Olaf College, MN)

The sentence, “Matr devo bhava”, occurs as part of a graduation address given by a Vedic teacher to his students in the Taittiriya Upanishad. These words are commonly translated as “Honor your mother as God,” or even “Mother is God.” Although the intent underlying these translations is noble, let us look at the sentence closely beginning with the word, ‘deva.’

“Deva” comes from the Sanskrit root, “div” which means “to shine” and it is used to describe a being deserving of honor, reverence and respect. Although “deva” is used in some contexts to refer to the Supreme Being, this is not so in all cases. When used for the Supreme, it is usually qualified by Maha-deva, Parama-deva or even Deva-Deva.

The verb-"bhava"- occurring at the end of the sentence means "to be" or "to become." We may therefore, translate ‘Matr devo bhava’ as “May you be/or may you become one for whom mother is a deva (a being treated with reverence and honor).” In fact, the Sanskrit word for mother (mātā) comes from the verb-root mān meaning to honor. Mātā therefore, means a respected or honored person. 

Mother signifies a relation; such a relation may have a biological basis but this is not its primary quality. Yashoda’s relation with Krishna, we should not forget, was not biological and she is honored and revered as his mother. 

The three words of the teacher are unqualified by time, place or circumstances. Mothers are not to be honored publicly and disrespected privately. They are not to be honored once a year and ignored every other day. They are not to honored in life and forgotten in death or vice-versa. The teacher does not ask us to honor our mothers only if we think that they are perfect beings. In fact, he does not qualify mother with the pronoun. ‘your.” All mothers deserve to be treated with honor. 

Personally, I prefer to translate ‘bhava,’ as ‘become’ (May you become one for whom mother is a deva). Becoming is a process involving learning, effort and growth. Similarly, the teacher exhorts his students to cultivate the attitudes and behavior appropriate to treating mothers as devas. If the practices of honor, reverence and respect for mothers came naturally with birth, there will be no need for the teacher to ask his students to become human beings for whom the mother is a deva.

These three words embody an ideal, but not one that is already accomplished. These words represent the hope of a teacher for his students continuing growth and one towards which, across cultures, religions and nationalities, we can all learn from and aspire to embody in our relationships.

Painting of Mother and Daughter by S. Elayaraja

Easter Prayers for Christians in Sri Lanka and the World

This Easter Sunday, our hearts are with our Christian brothers and sisters all over the world, and especially the people of Sri Lanka. We are shocked and heartbroken to read news of coordinated Easter attacks on three churches and three hotels in the cities of Colombo, Negombo, and Batticaloa, which took the lives of over 200 innocent people. 

Mahatma Gandhi once reflected on the meaning of Easter thus: 

"A man who was completely innocent, offered himself as a sacrifice for the good of others, including his enemies, and became the ransom of the world. It was a perfect act."

Lord Krishna echoes a similar message when he tells Arjuna in the Gita (6.30):

“Who sees Me everywhere, and sees all in Me, him I lose not, nor will he lose Me.”

May we find the strength and wisdom to see ourselves and to see God reflected in the faces of all around us. Once enveloped in such a radical love and empathy, may we pray for lasting peace on our planet.

Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti. Om Peace, Peace, Peace.

The photo depicts an Easter celebration in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, in 2016. Source

A Hindu Reflects on Passover

by Sadhana Cofounder, Sunita Viswanath

I am the Hindu wife and daughter-in-law in a very secular Jewish family. My father-in-law fasts on Yom Kippur, and my mother-in-law gathers her flock around her on Passover and Rosh Hashanah, but that is the extent of their religiosity. My youngest son Satya (I have two older sons from my first marriage) is half-Hindu and half-Jewish, and has more exposure to Hinduism than Judaism.

The first time I attended Passover Seder with the family, my older sons Akash and Gautama were 7 and 10 respectively, and Satya was still a few years from being born.  After carefully listening to the story told of the Israelites being enslaved by the Pharaoh and their being chosen for God’s protection and emancipation, Akash asked out loud, “What would the Egyptians have to say about this story?”  I held my breath to see if my new family would be offended, and was relieved when the whole family erupted in laughter. Of course, this story has become family legend.

For many years our family used the ubiquitous Maxwell House Haggadah, but over the years Stephan and his brother David have created more progressive and thoughtful Haggadahs which are written in light of our mixed-race and mixed-faith family (I am Indian Hindu and my sister-in-law is Italian Catholic).  Their Haggadahs also address the conflict between Israel and Palestine and include prayers for peace and self-determination of the Palestinian people. Like many progressive Jewish families, our family adds an olive and an orange to the Passover seder plate – the olive for the Palestinian people and the orange for the rights and inclusion of women and LGBTQ+ people in all aspects of society.

As Passover approaches this year, I have been thinking about the significance of this tradition in my life. I cannot separate my thoughts about Passover from the loving welcome I have received from my Jewish American family.  I was a divorced Indian Hindu woman with two young children, and yet from that year 15 years ago till now, there has never a moment of hesitation in the family’s support and love. My in-laws have traveled to India with us twice, and are incredibly curious about my world.  I in turn have taught my children that the heart of our Hindu faith and tradition is inclusive and pluralistic. In fact, the most central teaching of Hinduism is that we are all one. Vasudaiva Kutumbakam: the whole world is one family.

It therefore feels very natural that over the years I have lovingly overlaid the Passover story with my own stories with the result Passover feels more personal; more mine.

For instance, the story goes that the Pharaoh is afraid that the Israelites are becoming too powerful and decides to kill all the first-born sons in the land.  Moses is the first-born son in an Israelite family, and the family saves his life by sending him down the River Nile in a basket. Moses is raised by an Egyptian princess who loves him as her own.

In the Mahabharata, Karna, is born out of wedlock to a princess (Kunti) who sends him down the River Ganga in a basket, and is raised by a mixed caste family that loves him as if he were their own son.

Moses and Karna are both raised with love in families and communities not their own.  And in both examples, we see that family is not defined by birth and blood, and that love doesn’t recognize boundaries of socially constructed systems like race, religion and caste.

I would go so far as to say that for me, hope lies in those moments when we have truly connected with someone different from ourselves.   Perhaps the only way to eradicate hatred for the other is to: 1) connect across difference, embrace each other’s traditions, eat together, love each other and make mixed families together; and 2) reimagine our traditions to be more inclusive and egalitarian.

My organization, Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus, is doing this by reimagining Hindu scripture, rituals and teachings to align with the central Hindu tenet: We Are One. And my mixed race, mixed faith family is doing this just by existing!

This article was first published in Tikkun.

New Years Greetings for Vishu and Puthaandu

By Hari Venkatachalam, Sadhana member

Between April 13th and 15th, many South Asian and South-East Asian communities celebrated their New Year. In Thailand, people celebrated Songkran with water fights, while Bengali and Bangladeshi communities celebrated Pohela Boishakh with gift exchanges and colorful decorations. Other communities, including Nepali, Sinhalese, Burmese, and many others honor this new year with their own unique and beautiful traditions.

In Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the celebrations of Vishu and Puthaandu were celebrated through the decoration of shrines with fruits, books, candles, and flowers. But most importantly, a mirror was placed there as well. On the morning of the celebration, household members looked upon the shrine with hopes that the sight of blessed and beautiful objects would herald a year of fortune and joy.

The mirror plays a special role as well. It forces us to look at ourselves and reflect on our actions, and how we treat ourselves, our families, our communities, and the whole world. Sadhana hopes that each of us can use this time to reflect on how we can get in touch with the divine within us all, to make the world a better place. A world that is free from hatred, religious intolerance, misogyny, casteism, homophobia, and all the other flaws (Pāvam) that plague our society and keep us from recognizing our identity as one family.

We wish all of you a Happy New Year and hope that your celebrations empower you to make our vision of a unified mankind a reality. Vanakkam and Nalvazhthugal!


Connecting Children and Praying for Peace

Our Brooklyn Bala Vihar class this morning was extra-special because it falls on Rama Navami, the birthday of Lord Rama. It is a gorgeous spring day in New York, and we took our class outdoors. We took time to notice and enjoy the warmth of the sun, the blue of the sky and the feeling of cool breezes on our skin. We remembered that Bhumi Devi, Mother Earth, is the mother of all beings in the world and loves all people equally.

Then we had our regular Skype meeting with our young pen pals in Mazar-E-Sharif, Afghanistan. Our Bala Vihar kids started by singing and translating our usual opening prayer:

Om Sahana Vavatu
Sahanau Bhunaktu
Saha Viryam Karavavahai
Tejasvi Navaditamastu 
Ma Vidvishavahai
Om Shanti Shanti Shantihi

Oh God, may you protect us, nourish us, make us strong, give us wisdom, and help us learn together without fights and disagreements. Peace, peace, peace.

Our Bal Vihar took turns introducing themselves and explaining about what Brooklyn Bala Vihar teaches them about seva (community service). They also shared about their favorite Hindu festivals of Diwali, Holi, and Raksha Bandan. The Afghan kids already knew about all these festivals because they love Bollywood movies!

We had heard that our Afghan friends had a scary incident recently. A few weeks ago, there was fighting in Mazar-E-Sharif and a stray bullet hit the window of their classroom. Our kids in New York expressed concern and asked how the Afghan kids were doing. The Afghan kids spoke about how scary it had been, but reassured us all that they were safe. They said they were happy that they had friends in New York who cared about them.

We learned from our Afghan friends about Nowruz, the Afghan new year which was recently celebrated. They told us that they ate a feast during Nowruz, and were given new clothes. Their favorite Nowruz dishes are samanak and bulani. Families visit each other, go for picnics, and light fireworks. Since this is the start of the new year, and since they had such a scare recently, this Nowruz, they prayed ardently for peace.

We ended by greeting each other with “Shanti” and “Salaam,” both words that mean peace.

The Significance of Ugadi: Solidarity Among Us All

by Shashank Rao, active member

असतो मा सद्गमय

तमसो मा ज्योतिर्गमय

मृत्योर मामृतम् गमय

ॐ शांतिः शांतिः शांतिः 

“From untruth, lead us to truth

From darkness, lead us to light,

From death, lead us to life everlasting,

Let there be peace in the world.”

On the occasion of Ugadi, it is important to remember the need for solidarity among our communities, to express compassion for every one of us. Just as the pachadi our families prepare contains a combination of tamarind, chili, neem leaves, salt, and jaggery, we are reminded that life itself is complex.

Our world has never been simple, but rather has been vast, variegated, and vibrant for a long time, but it is only visible now. To practice solidarity in our communities, we must acknowledge the great variety of peoples and cultures that inhabit our world, which bleed into one another, and create the beauty of humanity. We must take care to remember the most downtrodden of our communities: caste-oppressed groups, Muslims, and Adivasis, among others. We all contribute to the world in diverse ways, and support each other in ways that are sometimes not visible.

Just as the experiences of life are interwoven thus, communities are as well. Whether we like it or not, our communities consist of various sorts, all of whom depend on one another for different things. I am reminded of a passage in the Vyadha Gita, a passage from the Mahabharata. While certain details of the text are anachronistic relative to us, there are some important lessons that we can learn from this.

In the story, a Brahmin named Kaushika goes to a house in a village and asks a woman for alms. After waiting for some time, he becomes angry for being kept waiting. The woman too is angry, for she was feeding her husband inside the house, and chastised Kaushika for his impatience and lack of understanding of her position and duties to her home.

The woman instructs Kaushika to go to Mithila and find a certain butcher, known for a keen understanding of dharma without being well-read in the śāstras and Vedas. Kaushika heeds her advice, and goes to listen to the butcher expound at length.

Maintaining politeness and decorum, the butcher acknowledges that he does indeed sell meat, and that taking life in itself is wrong. However, he is cognizant of the needs of people around him. Warriors and workers eat meat in order to have strength to do their work, and all merchants like the butcher occupy an important place in society in supporting society. Every part of society does something valuable for the whole, as well as things that are objectionable.

Despite the apparent disgust of his profession, the butcher realizes the omnipresence of Brahman as antaryami (the in-dwelling) as well as in the food that people partake of as prasāda (offerings to God). God as Brahman is omnipresent in all of us, and so dhyāna (prayer) brings our attention to that divinity in all things. Through the basic divinity that undergirds our existence, we are connected to one another without qualification.

The butcher demonstrates greater commitment to dharma than Kaushika, because even though Kaushika is so well read, he has only taken from society and not given back to it. The butcher sagely remarks:

“The injunction that people should not do harm to any creature (ahimsa), was ordained of old by men, who were ignorant of biological facts. For there is no one on the face of this earth, who is free from doing injury to creatures. After full consideration, the conclusion is irresistible that there is not a single person who is free from the sin of harming animal life.

“Even the sages whose vow is to do harm to no creature, inflict injury on animal life. Only, on account of greater attention and mindfulness on their part, the harm is less.

Men of noble-birth and outstanding qualities perpetrate wicked acts in defiance of all, of which they are not at all ashamed.” (Vyādha Gīta 2.28-30)

The butcher’s sermon is instructive in reminding us that all parts of society are valuable in teaching and learning, that we are dependent on one another for survival and flourishing in life. The oneness of Parabrahman is revealed through this interwoven whole, through understanding this we are stripped of delusions of grandeur, separation, and hierarchy.

We depend on one another for our well-being, and should actively recognize that codependency. These lessons that the butcher teaches Kaushika allow us to appreciate the meaning of the famous verse from the Īśavāsya Upaniṣad: “To see oneself in others, and others in oneself is to be free of sorrow and delusion” (Īśavāsya Upaniṣad 6-7). Being present and recognizing others for where they are and what they do brings us closer together, to co-experience love and grief, bitterness and grief, clarity and confusion.

May these lessons and reflections be valuable to us on this occasion of Ugadi, may our hearts be stirred to compassion and justice, and may we always recognize the Eternal One, ever-present and all-pervading, in ourselves and in others.

ॐ पूर्णमदः पूर्णमिदं पूर्णात्पुर्णमुदच्यते

पूर्णस्य पूर्णमादाय पूर्णमेवावशिष्यते॥

ॐ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः॥ 

“That is full, This is full, from fullness emerges fullness.”

“Taking fullness from fullness, naught remains but fullness.”

“Let there be peace in the world.”

The Hindu Theology of Ardhanarīśvara, the Queer God

by Shashank Rao, Active member

Note: In this essay, I attempt to set out a theology built on the principles found within Advaita Vedanta, the tradition that I come from, seeking to emphasize the humanity and inclusion of queer people in the Hindu community. As a preface, I will say that I write this as a non-queer person, as a gesture of inclusion to queer Hindus. I hope that this essay is timely, on the Transgender Day of Visibility.

Thank you to Hari, my friend who looked over this and gave me guidance.

Across Hindu communities, gender and sexuality are hot-button topics that spark debates and create rifts between queer Hindus and their families and communities. Due to the decentralized nature of Hindu institutions, it is difficult to discern a consistent view on the queer community and their place in Hindu traditions. While there is discussion of transgender people such as the hijra in various literature (including versions of the Ramayana), there seems to be little theological reflection on how to include queer people in all of their diversity. As violence and exclusion against queer people in religious spaces prevails across the world, it is important that Hindu leaders answer the call to uphold the dignity and protect our queer community members.

Indivisible from the One

The primary principle of Advaita Vedanta lies in its name : अद्वैत (advaita), meaning “not-two” or “indivisible”. This refers to the unitary and integrated nature of Parabrahman, the Ultimate Reality. Forms (रूप — rūpa) and names (नाम — nāma) are transient, coming and going but ultimately being rooted in the One. At the most fundamental level, one cannot deny the unity and equal value of all things and people because they all emerge as diverse effects of the one, original cause (आदिकारण — ādikāraṇa), Parabrahman. निर्गुण ब्रह्मन् (Nirguṇa Brahman), or Brahman without attributes, encompasses all of creation and nothing is excluded from it. Anantanand Rambachan, in his book on a Hindu theology of liberation, affirms that an understanding of Brahman necessarily leads to an equal regard for the worth of all of creation, including queer people (Rambachan 122).

Queer people are born into this world like anyone else, and so emerge from the infinitely vast Parabrahman. The diversity of Parabrahman is formed by माय (māya), the veil of phenomenal appearance, shifting and transforming the essence of Parabrahman into an array of divine expressions. Just as clay is formed into various shapes, all of creation is a part of a greater reality. Rather than problematize माय (māya) as transient and worthless (as many Advaita commentators have done before), we should embrace the infinitely creative potential of Brahman to bring forth the range of expressions that we see all around us. “Without any depletion, [Brahman] brings forth the universe as an act of self-multiplication” (Rambachan 131). This affirms the place of all groups of people in the grand mosaic of divine creation.

सगुण ब्रह्मन् (Saguṇa Brahman) as a Path to Liberation

There are many stories about Hindu gods that express queerness, such as Ardhanrīśvara (Shiva and Parvati as one), Harihara (Shiva and Vishnu as one), or Ayyappa (the son of the union of Shiva and Vishnu as Mohini).

These specific forms of God (or सगुण ब्रह्मन् — saguṇa brahman) express queer identities in a variety of ways that are not mutually exclusive of their divinity and worth. Ardhanarīśvara (अर्धनरीश्वर) is most famous among Hindu deities, taking on the form of what may be considered a transgender deity. Their being at once male and female does not deny the divinity or goodness of Ardhanarīśvara as a dispenser of wisdom. In the various stories of Ardhanarīśvara, They reveal themself and so illuminate the interconnected nature of the feminine and masculine, that they are in fact not so divided, and are ultimately part of the one. Parvati merges with Shiva so as to never be separate from Him, and in doing so allows creation to emerge from their combined form.

The apparent merging of the male principle (Shiva) and female principle (Shakti) into one shows that male and female are not binary and in fact are present in one another. Shiva cannot exist without Shakti, and Shakti cannot exist without Shiva. In this way, the conventional notions of “masculine” and “feminine” pervade all of creation. Transforming Ardhanarīśvara into a representation of Brahman, we can conceptualize queerness as a model of Brahman.

Just as Ardhanarīśvara symbolizes the union and integration of various parts and illuminating their true nature as a part of Brahman, the queer spectrum enables us to see multiple sexualities and gender identities as a part of one divine whole. Parvati and Shiva coming together reveals the united nature of all beings regardless of their sexuality or gender. However, this union does not create anything, but rather is illuminating what is already the case: that queerness is the Reality. This understanding reveals that queerness is not really “different” or suspect in the way that archaic meanings of “queer” may imply.

Understanding queerdom as Brahman, one necessarily must conclude that heterosexual and cisgender identities, too, exist within the vastness of queerdom. It reveals to us that cis-hetero models of gender and sexuality are limited, and demonstrate a narrow view of the cosmic Self. Each and every point on this spectrum is a different manifestation of divine majesty and is equally worthy of recognition in and of itself.

Socially constructed categories such as gender or sexual orientation may help guide our understanding, but those categories are not understanding in and of themselves. Like mistaking a guiding lantern for the sun, we mistake a socially constructed label for the Truth itself. The humanity of queer people is not diminished by their identification as such, but rather it is clarification of the fact they, like non-queer people, are extensions of the One.

Love as grace emanates from all beings, and does not differ because of the body they emanate from; just water nourishes all beings, it matters not what vessel it is carried in. The illusion that the vessel-Body disqualifies or taints the divinity of the water-Self within illustrates two delusions: that the transient Maya imparts its impermanent nature to the eternal Brahman, and that Maya does not entirely emanate from Brahman. These two delusions are barriers to accepting and loving queer people as our community members, and remembering that they too are a part of the divine infinity of God.

The illusion of a male-female binary is dispelled by the revelation of Ardhanarīśvara, making no room for doubt that any and all beings are on the infinitely long spectrum that is life. Queerness as Brahman allows us to radically redefine how we view our society. In addition, queer people can benefit from concentrating on this particular form of सगुण ब्रह्मन् (saguṇa brahman), as it reveals the way to know the unqualified निर्गुण ब्रह्मन् (nirguṇa brahman) which is present in all that is born, lives, and dies (तज्जलान ब्रह्मन् — tajjalāna brahman). The Chandogya Upaniṣad affirms that Brahman sustains the cycle of arising, existence, and dissolution, in which all things and people are included, which should be meditated upon (Chandogya Upaniṣad 3.14.1). In doing so, we can dispel ignorance and attain true, liberating wisdom. Similarly, worship of Ardhanarīśvara allows for queer Hindus and non-queer Hindus alike to reflect and appreciate the infinitely full expanse of Brahman in all of its vibrance, variegation, and vitality.

अविद्य as the Root of Suffering

To deny the humanity and worth of queer people is to not simply be ignorant but to be blind to the Truth itself. Brahman encompasses all things, and people who are born queer are a part of that creation; ignorance (अविद्य — avidya) about self and the world gives rise to hate, delusion, and anger. The crises of identity that many queer people (and indeed many marginalized people) experience is connected to a sense of inadequacy and social gaslighting. By being told that they do not fit into society because they do not accept or assimilate to the cis-hetero-normative model of understanding, queer people are led to believe that they themselves must be incomplete or deluded.

However, we must understand that this “[Inadequacy] does not arise because of any gain or any loss and is not resolved, therefore, as a consequence of any gain or loss such as wealth, fame, or power” (Rambachan 25). Forcing oneself to conform to social norms that conflict with themselves only deepens suffering (दुःख- duḥkha). Ignorance about the self can only be remedied by understanding and accepting oneself, including gender and sexuality. This knowledge is Brahman itself, exemplified by various महावाक्य (mahavākya), such as प्रज्ञानं ब्रह्म (prajñānaṃ brahma : “Consciousness/Knowledge is Brahman” — Aitareya Upaniṣad 3.3.7) and सर्वं खल्विदं ब्रह्म (sarvaṃ khalvidaṃ brahma : “All this is Brahman”). There is nothing contrary or unnatural about the life of queer people, because ultimately they are simply people, and we all dwell within the infinite embrace of Parabrahman.

Even as labels for gender and sexuality are socially constructed, they are useful to help locate oneself in the vastness of reality. Just as Ardhanarīśvara as सगुण ब्रह्मन् (saguṇa brahman) points to the Truth of Parabrahman, these labels position one’s notional self (the material body and its identities) relative to other things. To use a Zen Buddhist example, it is like a finger pointing to the moon and its reflection in the water. The finger (worship of Ardhanarīśvara and other deities as सगुण ब्रह्मन् (saguṇa brahman) is a means to understanding, and the moon and its reflection are the Reality (the knowledge of निर्गुण ब्रह्मन् — nirguṇa brahman).

This act of identification should not imply queer peoples’ unequal worth, as there are ultimately no distinctions in Parabrahman. Just as माय (māya) is the cause of varied appearance and does not ultimately change the nature of Brahman as unqualified and indivisible, to accept queer identities as valid parts of the One does not compromise the understanding of unqualified and infinite nature of Parabrahman. This knowledge must result in an ethical transformation of the Hindu community; queer identities cannot be marginalized or treated as qualities which bar one from liberation. How can one bar आत्मन् (Ātman — the Self), which is one with Brahman, from wisdom and worship? The Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad is unequivocal on the nature of the Self in this regard: “It is not woman, man, or third sex person; It identifies with whatever body it assumes” (Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad 5.11; quoted from Rambachan 130).

Actions of Compassion (दय — Daya)

For non-queer people (such as myself), our act of love and compassion (दय — daya) to our queer community members is to act on the imperative of Īśavāsya Upaniṣad, to see oneself in others and others in ourselves and rid ourselves of suffering (Īśavāsya Upaniṣad 6–7). We must be able to engage with their struggles through empathy; as Rambachan puts it, it is to “enter compassionately into the lives of others, seeing through their eyes, sharing their needs, understanding their thoughts, and responding to their needs” (Rambachan 123).

To those who wonder how to bring this into your daily life: Talk to your queer friends and family, acknowledge their intrinsic worth through a conscious engagement with their lives. Share this essay, and make room in your traditions for queer life and divinity to be acknowledged. I’ve shared a copy of the Ardhanarīśvara Stotram here.

I, as a growing scholar and writer, am cognizant of the harm and denigration that people in the Hindu community have perpetrated against the queer community. To truly move forward, we cannot forget past injustices, but rather learn from them and grow from that learning. Let this be a step in the right direction, and be a resource for others to support the queer Hindu community.

Works Cited

Rambachan, Anantanand. A Hindu Theology of Liberation: Not-Two Is Not One (SUNY Series in Religious Studies). State University of New York Press. Kindle Edition.

This piece was originally published at medium.com.

Sadhana's 2019 Mahashivaratri Reflection

Aum Namah Shivaya. Tonight, millions of Hindus all over the world will celebrate Mahashivaratri, Shiva’s Great Night. Through fasting, ritual, and meditation, Hindus dedicate this night to the remembrance of lord Shiva, the Destroyer of ignorance and injustice. Shiva is a god of contradictions: he is a yogi, immersed in solitary meditation, and he is also a bhogi, an enjoyer of worldly pleasures, a loving husband to Parvati and doting father of Ganesha and Karthikeya. In his fearsome aspects, he is Rudra, “the Howler”, Bhairava, "the Frightful”, and Kalantaka, “the destroyer of Time itself.” Yet, as Shankara, he is the “creator of auspiciousness,” and as Neelakantha “the Blue-Throated One,” we are reminded of his infinite compassion, choosing to drink poison in order to save the universe. Covered in ash, adorned by snakes, residing in cremation grounds, he is beyond social conventions, and as Ardhanarishwara, “half-woman Lord”, he is beyond binary distinctions of gender.

On this auspicious occasion, we would like to share this reflection from Sadhana Advisory Board member Dr. Anantanand Rambachan:

Aum tryambakaṃ yajāmahe sugandhiṃ puṣṭivardhanam urvārukamiva bandhanānmṛtyormukṣīya mā'mṛtāt (Rig Veda 7.59.12)


"We offer worship to the fragrant, three-eyed Lord Shiva, who enhances prosperity. May he liberate us from the bondage of death like the water melon; may he not let us turn away from immortality."

“This mantra is called the Mrtunjaya Mantra, since it invokes the blessings of Shiva for conquering death. The beauty of this mantra is that it is a complete prayer for all the four important goals of Hindu life.

Pushti, which means prosperity, includes both artha (wealth) and pleasure (kama). Sugandhim (fragrance) refers to dharma or virtue. The sweetness and beauty of human life do not come from the fact of wealth but from virtue. It is the practice of virtues like truthfulness, non-violence, compassion, generosity and self-control that gives fragrance and beauty to our lives. Wealth without the fragrance of dharma is unattractive and harmful to oneself and to others.

Finally the mantra is also a prayer for the fourth and highest goal of human life, moksha (liberation). A life of dharma leads us gently and naturally to the wisdom (jñāna) that liberates us from the fear of death. A melon goes through a natural ripening process. At the end of it this process, it painlessly separates from the vine. If it is plucked before this process is over, its sweetness is lost. In a similar way if we pursue all of our life-goals in the fragrance of virtue, we are blessed with that knowledge that helps us to overcome the fear of death through understanding the immortal self (ātmā). Moksha is the fruit of wisdom and virtue.”

Painting by A. Manivelu

Painting by A. Manivelu

A Call to Ahimsa and a Prayer for Peace

— By Saptagiri Iyengar, Active member of Sadhana

When does ahimsa lose relevance? It never does.

Even in the face of the Pulwama attack of February 14th that claimed the lives of forty Indian police officers. Even in the face of the Indian government’s counterstrike that claimed the lives of three hundred and twenty militants. Even in the face of the Pakistan government shooting down two Indian military jets. Ahimsa persists in the hearts and souls of the people of India and Pakistan. Ahimsa is not an idea or an ideology that risks losing relevance. Ahimsa is the very state of being natural to every human being. Ahimsa is our highest truth.  

The current political context is very tense. One small perceived misstep could spark a violent sequence of events that has the potential to cause irreversible bloodshed and destruction. The threat of nuclear annihilation looms over all of us. More than ever, we need to return our collective consciousness to the Ahimsa that is innate in every one of us. The need of the hour is Ahimsa--Ahimsa in how we think, how we act, and how we react.

As human beings, we must mourn the loss of lives incurred on all sides. We must not become desensitized to the humanity of our neighbors. Only by exercising Ahimsa collectively will we be able to stop this escalating cycle of Himsa.

We must exercise Ahimsa in our everyday reaction to the sensationalized news that stokes our egos and floods our minds with cries of revenge. It is only through the constant, intentional, exercise of Ahimsa in the face of this relentless stream of media provocation that will we able to come together as advocates of peace and harmony. It is through Ahimsa that we can struggle toward a world free of militaries, jingoism, and war.

 As staunch practitioners of Ahimsa, Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus calls on the citizens of India and Pakistan to stand in opposition to this rapid escalation of violence on both sides of this critical juncture. Foremost, we must stand in solidarity with the people of Kashmir, over whose homes and families the threat of war threatens to wreak the most devastating violence.

In 1966 M.S. Subbulakshmi, the renowned Carnatic singer, performed “Maitrim Bhajata” by the Paramacharya of Kanchi, Sri Chandrashekarendra Saraswati, in front of the U.N. Assembly. The humble song is a plea for universal peace and implores the nations of the world to unite under the banner of humanity. In the current moment, India and Pakistan should heed the timeless wisdom of the Jagadguru and put into practice this noble call.

maitrīṃ bhajata akhilahṛjjetrīm

ātmavadeva parānapi paśyata |

yuddhaṃ tyajata spardhāṃ tyajata

tyajata pareṣu akramam ākramaṇam ||

jananī pṛthivī kāmadughāste

janako devaḥ sakaladayāluḥ |

dāmyata datta dayadhvaṃ janatāḥ

śreyo bhūyāt sakalajanānām ||

 

Commit to Friendship and Humility,

For they will conquer the hearts of all.

Look upon others as yourself.

Renounce war.

Forsake rivalry.

Give up unwarranted invasions.

Mother Earth gives us all that we require.

God, our father, is most compassionate.

Oh peoples of the world!

Practice Restraint.

Be kind.

Be generous.

May all peoples reach the highest truth.

Dispatches from India: January-February 2019

Over the next few weeks, Sadhana cofounders Aminta Kilawan-Narine, Sunita Viswanath, and Sadhana’s Temple Outreach Coordinator Pratima Doobay will be in India, speaking at a series of meetings and interfaith gatherings. While we are here, we’ll meet stakeholders involved in pro-democracy, social justice, and interfaith work, share about our own work as progressive Hindu Americans, and learn how people in India view the role of Hindus in social justice work.

We will visit cities including Delhi, Kodaikanal, Madurai, Calicut, and Hyderabad. Check back for daily updates, and follow the hashtag #SadhanaInIndia on social media!


Day 1: Delhi & Behelpa

We arrived in Delhi in the wee hours of the morning, and spent the day with Swami Agnivesh, one of India’s most revered human rights activists, and with whom we are staying. We’ve worked with Swami Agnivesh in New York, Toronto, and Washington D.C., and today we were lovingly welcomed to his city, Delhi!

We spent our first day with Swami Agnivesh in his ashram, located in Behelpa, a small village just outside Delhi. Cute little puppies greeted us amidst the lush greenery at the ashram — a refreshing contrast from Delhi’s choking pollution! On January 5th, the ashram had a contingent of about 30 youth from around India to discuss the national movement that Swamiji is about to launch: Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (“the world is one family,” a mantra close to Sadhana’s heart and mission). This brainstorming session featured a diverse group of thinkers, including both religious and secular activists. Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam will address democracy and human rights in India, particularly the economic and social rights of the most marginalized Indians – Dalits, Adivasis and of course, women. The movement will be launched officially on January 26th (India’s Republic Day), at Kanyakumari, a holy site at the southernmost tip of India. Tomorrow, we are excited to be included in a planning meeting at Swami Agnivesh’s Delhi office.

During our conversations with Swami Agnivesh, we discused many deep philosophies and teachings, including the universality of the Vedas. Swamiji expounded that the Vedas are universal and do not address only Hindus but rather are intended for humanity. As young man, Swamiji encountered the Arya Samaj movement, which radicalized him. He shed his caste and family identity and took sanyaas. Since his 30s, Swamiji’s God has been truth and his spiritual life has been the struggle for justice. A few major takeaways and learning points from Swami Agnivesh: always question - or as he puts it: “Discuss, debate, and if necessary, dissent;” and “rather than worship in a man-made temple, why not take care of the temple that God has created – your own body!”

We took a long walk in the mountains with Swamiji and his staff. We made it to a local village temple where we performed worship to Lord Shiva and Hanumanji. While some of us were winded on the way back to the ashram, 80-year-old Swamiji showed us up – he went off jogging!

We ended our evening with Ajit Sahi, advocacy director of the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC), and discussed Sadhana’s work and vision for the future, as well as future collaborations between Sadhana and IAMC. It was Ajit’s birthday! We are looking forward to another action-packed day tomorrow!

Day 2: Delhi

We went to a good friend’s home and met his neighbors Vinod and Babu. Vinod and Babu are Dalit men from neighboring villages in Madhya Pradesh. We met with them because our friend had told them about our work as Hindus wanting to reject caste and reform our religion. We sat with Vinod and Babu in a beautiful meditation space our friend built on the roof of his building for all to enjoy.

Vinod did most of the talking. Babu was quiet, but said that everything Vinod told us was true for him also. We learned about the terrible conditions for Dalits in both villages that persist even till today. Dalits cannot use the same plates and glasses as upper caste people. They have to stay far from the water pump when upper caste people are collecting water. They are regularly abused with derogatory terms like “chamar,” and are even beaten up when people from the land-owning castes like Thakurs feel they have slighted them by not saying “Namaste.” When Vinod goes back to the village, he is careful not to wear good Western clothes because the upper caste villagers will think he is showing off and will resent him.

Vinod only studied till 3rd grade. He lost his father at a young age, and therefore had to quit school to work. He moved to the city when he was 29 in order to make a better life for his family. He has three kids who attend school, and for whom he has great hopes. He told us that the area he lives in has residents who are Hindus of different castes, and also Muslims. But there is hardly any discrimination; nothing like the conditions in the village. Vinod worships Balaji, Hanuman and Devi (Mother Goddess). We asked him if he considers himself Hindu, and he said that by faith he is Hindu, and yet socially he is an outcast. He is not allowed into the temple into his village; Dalits have to pray from outside. Vinod asked us to share his story, and we are publishing this with his permission.

We told Vinod and Babu all about Sadhana’s work, and our desire to work towards the eradication of caste. Vinod said that no one had ever tried to bring change to the village. The upper castes wouldn’t allow it because then they would lose power, and why would they want to do that?

We asked how change could come about. Vinod had a ready answer: every person, regardless of caste, religion, etc, should have a home, an education and a job. Also, caste discrimination should be punished severely. Then, after a generation of struggle, we would see change. Vinod could see the way to improvement, but didn’t have any realistic hope that such change would come.

We told Vinod and Babu that it has been very hard for us to work with Dalits in the United States. There is a sense that Hindus cannot be a part of anti-caste work because we are from the religion which created and perpetuates caste. Vinod understands the political reasons for this, but feels that the movements for justice must address the rights of everyone and include everyone, including Hindus.  Improvements will only come if we all come together. We also told Vinod and Babu about Swami Agnivesh and the people’s movement he is about to launch, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam.

Then we headed to Swami Agnivesh’s office at Jantar Mantar in central Delhi. About 15 people, mostly journalists and lawyers, gathered for a discussion. Aminta, Sunita and Pratima shared about Sadhana’s work in community service (seva), advocacy and religious reform, and asked the people gathered to share about the pro-democracy efforts taking place in India, and the role of faith-based activists. Several of the people gathered were Hindu, and were moved by our presentations, particularly Pratima’s experiences of training to be a priestess and promoting inclusion and progressive values in a very conservative temple and family.

Ajit Sahi, advocacy director of Indian American Muslim Council, explained just how important it is for Hindus in America to be educated about Hindutva’s far reach. We argued that while many different strategies were needed to combat religious extremism, a part of that response had to be progressive religious reform. If caste was to be annihilated, Hindus had to be a part of the fix.

The discussion was animated and wide-ranging. Some felt that Sadhana’s work could only take place outside India; that caste was way too entrenched in India. And yet Hinduism has seen reform movements throughout history; Swami Agnivesh himself is a leader in the Arya Samaj. Sadhana’s leaders value this opportunity to engage in nuanced dialogue with social justice activists in India. We feel welcomed and taken seriously as progressive Hindus.

Our friend Laila, a young Afghan woman studying in India, came out to dinner at a restaurant with live music in Hauz Khas Village, a hip enclave for dinner and nightlife. Pratima knew all the Bollywood and Qawwali songs that the wonderful band performed, and even sang with them. We ended our second day with a long conversation back at home with Swami Agnivesh about the Vasudaiva Kutumbakam movement, Sadhana’s part in it, and laughed together over many stories from Swamiji’s eventful life. We were honored to stay with him during our time in Delhi and to meet his hospitable staff, including Ashokji. Tomorrow we will leave for Madurai, to see the Madurai Meenakshi temple and participate in an interfaith discussion about social justice in India.

Day 3: Madurai

Our day started before sunrise, our plane to Madurai was delayed, and we are quite sleep deprived. However, the delicious food we’ve been eating has more than compensated for any hardships! We arrived in Madurai at around 3 pm, and had only two hours before the interfaith event we would participate in. The cab ride from the airport was a beautiful experience – we all felt home here in a way we didn’t in Delhi. Madurai has more of a small town feel, and there are gorgeous and colorful temples wherever you look. The roads are unpaved and there aren’t any skyscrapers. Sunita is from South India, and spent her formative years in Chennai. Pratima and Aminta are Guyanese Americans, and they agree that Madurai looks, smells and feels like Guyana.  We had just enough time to check into our hotel and freshen up before heading via auto-rickshaw to the Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer Community Hall for our interfaith gathering, organized by Mr. Mahboob Batcha and Ms. Selvagomathy of SOCO Trust, Madurai.

The participants included more than 75 professors, lawyers, journalists and activists. These were people who have been working together for decades on building communal harmony and human rights in their country.

As we waited for people to arrive, Dr. Murli, a former college principal and the moderator for the evening, told us that this group has had many discussions about politics and social justice over the years, bur rarely have their conversations addressed religion. He said that there was no space for Hindus to take part in discussions about politics. The temple space isn’t open for discussions on societal issues, and left/progressive spaces aren’t welcoming to religious people, especially Hindus. He remarked that this is perhaps why Hindus end up supporting Hindutva groups and positions – because there is no other platform for them to discuss Hinduism. Dr. Murli flagged that there is a Gandhi museum nearby, where interfaith gatherings are held. At those gatherings, participants share positive messages about religion in general, but there is never action afterward. Dr. Murli recognized that what we are doing is new and critical.

Dr. Murli introduced us and set the context for the discussion. Aminta and Sunita explained Sadhana’s work over the past seven years – the overall mission of Sadhana and our specific activities in advocacy, service and religious reform. There was an extremely vibrant discussion over the next two and a half hours. There were people from different religions in the room, as well as atheists. Dr. Murli did a great job of ensuring that people didn’t take too much time or talk over each other. After every few questions and comments, Aminta and Sunita gave a response.  

Even though the people who spoke were mostly men, and there weren’t many women in the room, many spoke about the importance of women’s rights. While everyone who spoke seemed to see the value of a progressive Hinduism, some speakers expressed some skepticism with comments like, Caste is inextricable from Hinduism,” and “This is unrealistic in the Indian context.” Some speakers expressed enthusiastic support for the ideas we had shared, and one older man said, “I am happy that two women have come from so far away to speak to us about our own traditions, to remind us of our own Gandhian way, and to awaken us.” 

Sunita and Aminta made a good argument for the need for progressive reform in all religions, Hinduism included. Since Hindus are the majority, and since it is Hindu nationalism that is causing insecurity and terror among religious minorities in India, progressive Hindus should be welcomed as part of all efforts for justice and democracy. Hindus who believe Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world is one family) must be mobilized to build that unity in the world. Hindutva cannot be conquered without Hindus, and caste cannot be annihilated without Hindus. Our new friends listened, many nodded, and even those who were skeptical were intrigued. We received much validation and receptiveness, arguably more than we’ve ever received in the U.S. Perhaps this is because of the gravity of the situation in India - we were told that people are scared, there is no space for free speech, and some are arrested or even killed for speaking out.

Aminta and Sunita both spoke about Sadhana’s work with Swami Agnivesh, and the Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam people’s movement he is about to launch. This group has also worked closely with Swami Agnivesh over the years, and consider him their friend and ally. Some from this group will travel to Kanyakumari on Jan 26th to participate in the action Swamiji is organizing. 

Some points raised by the attendees:

  • Hindutva forces have a huge reach in the United States and other countries, and raise a lot of their money from there. Our response: This is exactly why it is important for Sadhana to be supported. If we have a robust progressive Hindu platform, many young Hindu Americans will join us, and help create a counter-narrative to Hindu nationalism.

  • A Christian man said he loved our talk, and it reminded him of his youth when he became inspired by liberation theology.

  • Several people spoke about how insecure people were feeling – particularly those from minorities or those who are secular in their thinking. People are afraid to speak their minds.

  • Several people said that what we were doing in the States couldn’t happen in India because caste is inseparable from Hinduism. It is an unrealistic project. Our response: Sadhana is proof that it is possible to be Hindu and reject caste. If caste is seen as inseparable from Hinduism, we must separate it anyway. 

  • One man said that there really isn’t such a thing as Hinduism because this label was coined by colonists in order to unify our many diverse traditions. Our response: While we waste time debating whether or not Hinduism exists, Hindutva forces will keep working to turn India into a Hindu rashtra (Hindu nation).

Since so many speakers focused their comments on caste, Aminta closed the evening by recounting our meeting with Vinod and Babu, two Dalit residents of a slum in Delhi. If a young man with a third-grade education can say with confidence that if we make sure that every Indian has a home, an education and a job, then a generation later we will begin to see caste fall away, we must be inspired by his spirit and soldier together to fight hatred, bigotry and nationalism, and together apply ourselves to dharma, which is none other than justice.

Day 4: Madurai

Reflection by Pratima Doobay, Sadhana’s Temple Outreach Coordinator.

I identify as a Sanatan Hindu who believes in the eternal.  I aspire to be a Pandita (priestess) devoted to the community. I see God in the community. This was my second trip to Madurai. On the lane that led to the Madurai Meenakshi temple, we bought malli (jasmine) flowers and put them in out hair, giving a sweet aroma. At another stall, we bought offerings for the fish-eyed goddess Meenakshi Devi, and then we made our way to the temple. Upon entering the mandir, we were in awe of a large tree hovering over the snake God (naga devata). As we walked around the tree three times, it was as if we were walking for the past, the present and the future. We asked for guidance and protection, as well as for enlightenment. We then made our way to the temple. As soon as we walked in, we were greeted by Aghori Baba. Aghori is a form of Lord Shiva that represents abandoning societal norms and just acquainting yourself with the divine. Aghori Baba challenges us to think outside the box; so does Kali in all her shameless glory. In a way, this is also affirming that though my path as a priestess may be different from the traditional pandits, I’m doing something right.

Then, we stepped over to Bhadrakali, who presided in front of us, beaming with energy and standing as a monument of hope and power. We thanked her for the unlimited strength she gave us; upon looking at her, we were able to see a reflection of ourselves in her eyes. It was an affirmation that we were meant to be there. We walked over to Ganesh and as we stood in front of him, we asked him to remove any obstacles in our path and to bless us with wisdom and guidance to help others manifest their own power.

We walked along the path to reach the main shrine of Meenakshi Devi and all along the way above us, lining the ceilings, were colorful, vibrant, painted mandalas. Each one had a profusion of shaped and colors within. Each triangle had a different deity and symbolism. To me, this represented unlimited diversity.

Whereas upon walking to the entrance where Meenakshi Devi stands, there are signs that say only Hindus are allowed.  Looking around, there were people from all around the world that had come to receive the blessings of the Goddess. These people were prohibited from taking darshan. We saw lines of devotees waiting for darshan. The longest line was made up of people who couldn’t even pay 50 rupees. The shorter lines were for people who could pay to pray.

We made an empowered decision together without even sharing words. We would not participate in the hypocrisy of exclusion when we know in our hearts that Devi does not discriminate according to where we come from and how much money we have in our pockets. We stood together and sang praises to Devi from afar and we were sure that our prayers reached her ears; “Jaya Jaya Devi, Meenakshi Sharanam.” Rather than enter the line, we eventually found our own Devi, nestled in a wall, where we offered our love, our flowers and took our blessings.

I sat with my sisters on the stairs by the side of the tank and we spoke about the serenity that we felt, but how heartbroken we were as well. It made us reflect on where we come from, and how thankful we are to come from a place where the doors of mandirs are open for everyone and where you don’t have to pay for darshan.

We then made our way to find Shiva but witnessed the same exclusion as we experienced when trying to see Meenakshi Devi. We ventured off to find our own free Shiva, open to all — and we found him, in the form of Bhairav. We left a mala at the shiv lingam and felt his blessings. Our hearts were filled, and we felt satisfied to leave.

My sister Aminta wanted to offer a coconut to Ganesha under the tree where we first prayed. Her first attempt at breaking the coconut was almost successful, and we all felt certain that it was Ganesh himself who sent someone to help her peel the husk and gave her the courage and strength to break the coconut.

Aminta describes the experience: “I felt hopeful and complete. We worshipped on our own terms. To me, that garnered the biggest blessing that we could have received on our trip. I felt the kind man who came to help me break the coconut was validating our choice to believe in a Goddess that loves everyone and turns no one away. After we prayed and sang and broke a coconut at this murthi that was receiving no attention, a crowd gathered. We completed our darshan in their company. I felt a sense of satisfaction and acceptance; there is another way. Many guides had come up to us and told us that since we speak English we would not understand anything, and that our worship would be fruitless. In our time at Meenakshi temple, we found that we did not need a guide. We were our own guides; our own gurus. Worship should not be so commercialized, and we should have the freedom to think and pray for ourselves.”

I was fortunate enough to then find a good friend I had made on my last trip to Madurai, named Pooncholai.  When we laid eyes on each other, it was like the meeting of two long-lost sisters.  The love that I felt from Pooncholai reassured me that the divine feminine energy exists in all of us, and is not confined to a murthi. Receiving the love and warmth of Pooncholai was equivalent to what I had imagined hugging the Goddess herself would feel like.

The words of Swami Agnivesh resonated with me instantly: “God is not confined to stone or mandirs, but in the hearts of everyone.” Pooncholai and her husband welcomed us so lovingly, and treated us as if we were their own, though we were foreigners. We told Pooncholai all about our choice not to receive direct darshan of Meenakshi, and she promptly took us by the hand and led us to her favorite temple, a short walk away from the Meenakshi temple. We basked in the presence of this wide-eyed, powerful Kali, tucked away from the crowds in a market of tailors and seamstresses. This Kali is the people’s Kali; she was the true reflection of who we are. We are the advocates of all excluded people. Our mantra is Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world is one family).

Day 5 and 6: Kodaikanal

As we approached Kodaikanal (Kodai), we saw monkeys on both sides of the road, as if lined up just to greet us. There were groups of monkeys, lone monkeys and mother monkeys with their little ones. One monkey was emptying a plastic bottle of water; another was trying to get into a discarded bag. We laughed with delight.

Our guesthouse was called Atman (individual soul), and our hosts Lakshmi and Dinesh are very special souls indeed. They had lucrative careers and had traveled all over the world. A few years ago they realized that they wanted to make a big change in their lives; they wanted to slow things down and be more intentional in their living. They left their jobs, opened this guesthouse, and limit their travel to India. They run the guesthouse without any advertising, and their guests come through word of mouth. In Lakshmi’s words, “We want our guests to accomplish the purpose with which they have come, and we like to take care of their other needs so that they are worry-free while they are with us.”

We were in Kodai for a two-day course on Gandhi. Our teacher, David Barunkumar Thomas, also had a complete life transformation. After a highly successful career in information technology, he took an entirely different path. He had always wanted to dedicate himself to social service, but only when he had saved up enough money to stop working.  It was 2003 when David and his wife took the leap and moved to Kodaikanal. David started a nonprofit organization called India Nirman Sangh (INS) which focuses on women’s empowerment.  INS works with women in villages in the hills of Kodai, and also in the nearby town of Palani. Today, this organization works with 6,000 women. Their main activity is organizing micro-lending groups (which have had a 100% repayment rate in recent years), but they do so much more. They have helped 600 women build toilets in their homes. They connect women with healthcare services in Coimbatore. And more recently, they have been running discussion groups on issues of ethics and values.  David has hired eight women who have excelled in the micro-lending groups to be fieldworkers – these women have been key to the success of all the programs.

Caste, communal identities and hierarchies are very much present in the villages where INS works. The most prevalent community is the OBCs (other backward classes). Even though these are underprivileged groups, they are the most socially superior in these villages. Other communities present are Dalits, Adivasis, Christians and Muslims. The villages are segregated into different areas for the different castes and communities. Dalits are generally not allowed into the homes of the OBC households. Sometimes micro-lending circles meet in people’s homes, and Dalits participate while sitting outside the home. There is one village which bars Dalits from the water well. These things are changing but very slowly. INS meetings, when held in spaces arranged by the organization, do not allow such practices. Caste and discrimination are addressed as much as possible, and young people who leave the village usually come back with more openness to change. When couples fall in love across caste and community lines, there is serious conflict in the villages – there is often violence, expulsion from the village, and on some occasions, even honor killings. We thought of our Delhi friends Vinod and Babu as we heard all this from David.

When we asked David about what he is hopeful about, he said he wasn’t hopeful that caste would fall away any time soon. However, he feels certain that within two years, every home in India will have a toilet.

Over the years, David has been immersed in development, education, caste and women’s rights at the village level – all issues addressed by Gandhi. Living in such a rural setting, he also became more interested in agriculture, again something very relevant to Gandhi. David began to read about Gandhi extensively about 5 years ago, and on Gandhi Jayanti October 2, 2017, David officially opened the Gandhi Farm and Gandhi Center where our course was held. The farm is another way to serve the villagers of this area. David has felt for a while that the people he works with in the villages see life as an endless punishment. In these two years, he has been conducting four hour workshops with small groups of villagers to combine some insights into Gandhi’s life and values with the challenges they face in their own lives. His goal is to open up their minds to notions of values and ethics, and to inspire in them with a sense of higher purpose.

We are the first external group to take David’s course on Gandhi. Our course was, of course, very different to the workshop designed for the villagers. It was two days long, and deals with history, philosophy and politics. David is considering conducting such courses on an ongoing basis at the Gandhi Center, and also in other cities and perhaps online. Our class was designed as an interactive workshop, and the group was a talkative and engaged bunch. We learned about and discussed Gandhi’s personal life, his political journey, how he evolved over his lifetime, and the values and principles that were central to Gandhi like ahimsa (non-violence).  The students included a few devoted Gandhians, but most of the students were open-minded if not skeptical, and we had some great debates about controversial issues like Gandhi’s treatment of women, his views on caste, his tactics such as fasting, his obsession with “consumption and evacuation,” his inconsistencies and self-contradictions on so many issues during his life, and the complexity of Gandhi’s Ahimsa. The vibrant discussions made the two days go by all too quickly, but we will stay in touch with our new friends, especially David. 

Gandhi is most often criticized for his stances on caste, and also for his treatment of women.  David gave us a different perspective on Gandhi and caste:

  • We are often told that Gandhi was committed to varnashram (the four hierarchical caste groupings of Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, Shudras) but David showed us that Gandhi evolved throughout his life on this issue and by the end of his life was completely against caste in all its forms.

  • We are often told that the reason Gandhi didn’t agree to separate a electoral block for Dalits was because he didn’t want to separate Dalits from the Hindus. However, in this class we learned that there was another possible reason. If there was a separate electoral block for Dalits, the Dalit status would be permanent, whereas Gandhi actually wanted this category to fall away. When Gandhi went on his famous hunger strike, Ambedkar compromised and agreed to reservations for Dalits, but only for ten years, again so that the goal would be to do away with the Dalit category.  This has been repeatedly extended over the decades, but the original vision was a stopgap measure of affirmative action.

  • David also asserted that Ambedkar came to prominence almost entirely because Gandhi encouraged and promoted him, and chose him to join the constitution drafting committee. 

We felt that David should have spent more time on the issue of Gandhi and women. We find ourselves unable to accept Gandhi’s experiments with celibacy  when he tested himself by sleeping in the same bed as his nieces, but the class glossed over this episode. We also felt that more time could have been spent on the need for and relevance of Gandhi’s life and legacy in the world today. In a conversation with David after the class, we shared about our work through Sadhana to build a platform for progressive Hinduism in the United States and beyond. David was happy to hear of our efforts and said, “I firmly believe that the only way to defeat Hindutva is by mobilizing Hindus.” All in all, it was deeply enriching to be discussing Gandhi and such lofty aspirations as universal love and compassion with such an interesting group of people in the idyllic setting of an organic farm and ashram in the mountains.

On our trip to India, it was inspiring to learn just how many people were spending their lives working for the betterment of others. Some of the students we got to know:

David is originally from Wales, has lived and worked in Zambia and Botswana, and has lived fo some time now in Kodaikanal with his Keralan wife. He is an educator.

He has always had an interest in Gandhi, and is sad that people seem to have little respect for Gandhi these days. David feels that Gandhi’s legacy is under threat, and that it is a dangerous time in India right now when people don’t feel safe expressing their opinions. 

Reena lives in Kodai and works at a pottery store which donates a percentage of profits to disadvantaged children in and around Kodai. She has worked with David over the years and has been wanting to learn more about Gandhi. She is inspired by this class and wants to do work with young people, to get them to engage in political life, and become aware of our history, present and be a part of building the future.

Krishnan is the creator of a nonprofit organization in Madural called The Yellow Bag. This is a project which promotes responsible consumerism. The yellow bag (manjapai) is a cloth bag given to guests at a wedding or other ceremony, with a coconut and other items. Before the arrival of plastic bags, people would use and reuse their yellow bags, and even repair them if they got torn.  The Yellow Bag takes orders for custom-made cotton bags, and employs women to make these bags either in their homes or in their central location. At present, about 50 women are employed, and about 60,000 bags are made per month. Krishnan came to this Gandhi course because he felt the need for guidance about the question of ambition. He wonders whether he should have a 500 people company or 100 units of 5.  And he wonders if growth is a good or bad thing.  He feels the class has given him a lot to think about regarding these internal questions.

Sunayna is the Kodaikanal convenor for Intach, Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, an organization created in 1984 by Pupul Jaykar. There are chapters all over India and a few abroad. The Kodaikanal chapter is quite new and focuses on teaching and inspiring children. She attended the Gandhi course because her grandparents were freedom fighters who spun khadi and even went to jail. Her mother also has memories of seeing Gandhi at Marina Beach, Chennai, when she was a child. After attending this course, she is struck by Gandhi’s fearlessness, and hopes to shed some of her own fears and anxieties.

Shankar works with a Gandhian organization called Aakam Trust, for the education and upliftment of children living in poverty. Palani runs a nature shop in Chennai, and has been learning about Gandhi and Kumarappan for the past year. He is also involved with the Cuckoo Movement for education of underprivileged children. Shankar and Palani both want to learn new ways of motivating these children by teaching them about Gandhi’s life and legacy.

 Immanuel and Zareen are married and moved to the United States many years ago to raise their three children, where Immanuel worked for the Clorox Company. They moved back to India and settled in Kodai. Immanuel is an educator and has served on the board of Kodaikanal International School. Immanuel was instrumental in helping to gain Laila (mentioned in our Delhi blog) admission to Kodaikanal International School once she arrived in India from Afghanistan. He is a collector of books by Gandhi, many of them rare and limited editions. Inspired from being part of a mother’s club in the U.S., Zareen started a similar club in Kodai, where mothers could bond with each other, set up play dates with their children, etc. Zarreen jokingly mentioned that the only difference between the mothers club she was a part of in the States and the club she started in Kodai was that the mothers in Kodai couldn’t keep secrets! Zarreen, who is originally from Bombay and speaks little Tamil, is working on organizing villagers to create “smart villages” equipped with things like wireless internet and proper sanitation. 

Padmini runs a school called the My School / Satya Swaroopa for marginalized children of the surrounding five villages. It serves underprivileged children including Adivasis and those from tribal villages. Padmini was curious to learn about Gandhi’s world view particularly because she perceived him to be a conflicting character for his time. At the course, Padmini learned to be loving and open to everyone and to do your best to try to understand everyone. She will be introducing these teachings to her students in efforts to empower them. She feels that if everyone adapted the concept of ahimsa to some degree, the world would be better served. For Padmini, implementing that which she learned at the course will make her a better teacher. 

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After Kodaikanal, Aminta and Pratima returned to New York City with their hearts energized to deepen Sadhana’s work. For Aminta, the trip reaffirmed why she co-founded Sadhana in 2011, and validated the organization’s years of advocacy for social justice and selfless service in the name of ahimsa and ekatva. For Pratima, the trip underscored the need for a new sort of Hindu reform movement, one that was inclusive of all, with love at its core. Aminta, Pratima and Sunita’s sisterhood grew on their journey to India, amidst both laughs and tears. While the trip birthed many new questions, it validated the need for Sadhana’s existence beyond the United States, particularly in a country like India where Aminta, Pratima and Sunita heard several times that freedom of speech is threatened, often in the name of the very faith we hold dear. Thus, we carry on promoting Sadhana’s mission.

Day 7: Calicut

Reflection by Sunita Viswanath, Sadhana Co-Founder & Board Member

By the time I said goodbye to Aminta and Pratima, I was feeling quite sick. I had a cold, bodyaches and headache. And unfortunately, I had chosen to take a train to Calicut, for the adventure of it. Train travel in India while sick isn’t the greatest idea. I had hoped to take walks in Calicut, explore the city, and read at the beach. Instead I did a lot of sleeping in my hotel room.

I arrived in the early morning of Jan 22nd, and had just about enough time for a shower before I joined Mr. K. P. Ramanunni for a press conference at the Calicut Press Club.

I should tell you all about Ramanunniji, truly a brother to Sadhana. When little Asifa was gang-raped and murdered last year, in a Hindu temple in Jammu, our hearts were shattered and we organized a rally in Union Square, NY.  Our rally was co-sponsored by 9 Hindu temples, and while this was unprecedented, we were disappointed that not one of those temples were Indian temples. We knew that Indian Hindus must be as devastated as we were, but the Indian temples in NY weren’t ready to take a stand with us. Just at that time, we saw in the news that a Malayali award-winning writer, Mr. K.P. Ramanunni, had done a remarkable thing. He was a Hindu believer who was so horrified by this atrocity perpetrated by Hindu men inside a Hindu temple that he conducted a Hindu ritual on behalf of all Hindus.  We reached out to him and he responded right away. He was as moved to connect with us we were to connect with him – we were of one mind and heart, and belonged together in struggle. I later learned that this man is an important literary figure in India, the author of over 20 books including 4 novels, and a winner of numerous awards including one of India’s greatest literary awards – the Sahitya Academy award. In fact, I learned that Ramanunniji had donated the entire prize money from the Sahitya Academy award to the family of Junaid, the teenage Muslim boy who was lynched by a Hindu mob during Eid over a year ago.

It was this same Ramanunniji who welcomed me to Calicut all these months later, and worked so hard to take maximum advantage of my visit to raise awareness of the need of the hour: solidarity of all progressives in the service of democracy. He had organized a press conference at the Calicut Press Club on the day I arrived to notify the local press about an interfaith gathering to take place the next day. There were about 50 journalists present at the press conference including local TV stations with their cameras. I was impressed with Ramanunniji’s preparations. I had no idea what to expect, and would have been happy with an intimate roundtable discussion with a handful of like-minded activists. Apparently the press conference made it into all the Malalayam language papers and TV networks, and also a few English language papers.

The next day, Ramanunniji and I spent much of the day together in dialogue. Ramanunniji will write about our exchange in a Malayalam magazine. I learned that his birthplace was Calcutta, intellectual and literary capital of India, and his native place is Ponnani, the cultural and intellectual capital of Kerala. Ponnani is famous for being a haven of communal harmony. Many people came from outside – Christians, Muslims, Jews – but there was never any conflict, just a loving exchange of culture and customs.  Ramanunniji told me that Ponnani has produced many writers, all of them pluralistic and inclusive. He considers them his lineage, and like all of them, he writes and lives motivated by sheer love towards those of other religions. He said with a lovely pride, “We call this Ponnani school culture.” Ponnani writers are known to give more importance to mission than aesthetics. The purpose of our writing is activism to make life better.  My writing is the mission of my life.

I asked about the book which won the coveted Sahitya Academy award, “Book of God.” Ramanunniji told me all about it.

“This is probably my favorite of all my books. It is unique because it is a fantastical work of science fiction in which I have portrayed Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) as a character in a novel for the first time ever. What’s more, Mohammed (PBUH) is shown as the brother of Lord Krishna (PBUH).  I have depicted the true spirit of Ponnani.  My book has been praised by Muslims all over the world, particularly in Dubai, Quwait and Muscat where many Malayali people have made their lives. I have received phone calls from Muslim readers who wept because I had portrayed their Prophet with so much love. Hindus also love this book because of my loving rendition of Lord Krishna (PBUH).  The book is now in its 8th edition even though it is 700 pages long.  The Sahitya Academy is run by the Central government, and it is very surprising that such a book won their award under this Hindu nationalist regime. I believe that when God and the true messengers of God combine forces, nothing can resist.  I am a believer in a supreme universal divine force, and my life’s belief in realized in this book. I see this novel as an expression of my identity, my Self.”  Ramanunniji hopes that the English version of the book will be published soon; the book has already been translated, and the search is on for the right publisher.

At 5 pm we arrived at the K.P. Kesava Menon Hall, and to my surprise, an audience of about 250 had gathered, including press. The format of the gathering was similar to the Madurai event organized by Mr. Batcha. Unfortunately though, this time there was no time for audience Q&A. After a welcome by Mr. Ramanunni, I gave my presentation about Sadhana and the urgent need for Hindus in India and the world over to stand up for the values of pluralism and inclusion in order to counter the hateful narrative of Hindu nationalists. Then there were responses from about a dozen local writers, educators and activists.  The respondents were important community leaders, and included Hindus, Muslims, Christians and atheists. Almost all the respondents seemed to understand and sympathize with my message about the need for progressive Hindus to rise up and speak up. Several speakers identified as members of the Left, and said how important my message was.

Mr. Parakkadavu, a Muslim fiction writer, was the responder who most appreciated Sadhana’s message.  He said that the distance between Gandhi and Godse is the same as the distance between Hinduism and Hindutva. He remarked that it was ironic that in today’s context of Hindtuva power, Godse is seen as a true believer and Gandhi is seen as a non-believer; and if Gandhi were killed today by Godse, we would say a believer has killed a non-believer.  He said that Hinduism was far more inclusive than the semitic religions, and Hindus ought to be very proud of the teachings of their scriptures. He approved of Sadhana’s efforts to bring an end to the current confusion among Hindus.

Mr. P.N. Das gave a spiritual response. He told the story of a blind man who visited a guru and was given a lamp. He said he didn’t need a lamp since he was blind, but the guru said others would see the lamp and not bump into him. After some time, a man bumped into the blind man. The blind man shouted, didn’t you see my lamp? The man replied, your lamp has gone out.  Mr. Das doesn’t consider himself a Hindu – he is very inspired by Jiddu Krishnamurthi and also Sufism and Zen Buddhism. He takes comfort in spirituality but is not very optimistic for our world.

I was thrilled that two women spoke, both Hindu, and both had been part of the women’s wall. One woman, also called Suneetha, gave a very thoughtful response. She spoke about how alienated people are feeling in this materialistic and capitalistic world, and the comfort that religion must bring them. She invoked Mr. Das’s blind man whose lamp had gone out, and wondered if some people’s faith has similarly been extinguished. She saw Sadhana’s mission as “purifying” Hinduism of its oppressive tendencies, and she welcomed it. The other woman, Dr. Sangeetha, spoke quickly before rushing off to be with her baby. She said that she herself was not a believer, but fully understood the critical need for “critical insiders.”  Both women fully endorsed Sadhana’s mission. 

A.P. Kunhamu, a Muslim writer, said that the term “progressive Hinduism” is a misnomer. He asserted that every religion is progressive. Those who are extremists are not true religionists. Modi’s followers are not true Hindus, and Muslim terrorists are not true Muslims.

Advocate Saji, a Christian writer and waxed poetic, said that the Indian constitution may have been penned by Ambedkar, but the ink was Gandhi’s. He felt that the Indian constitution was a deeply Hindu document since the same inclusiveness was the backbone of both. He seemed to think there was no need to worry because the secular spirit of our constitution would carry us through.

Yet another Christian speaker, Father Vincent Arakkal, praised the solidarity of the people of Kerala during the recent floods, and blamed the media for manipulating the Keralans with regard to Sabarimala. He said “the media has imprisoned us.” He invoked the time of the European renaissance and wondered if we shouldn’t be keeping religion and politics apart rather than entwining them.  He said that Hinduism’s greatest contribution to the world was the idea of “universal nationhood,” the very opposite of Hindutva.

There was only one gentleman who flatly rejected my ideas, saying that religion could never be a catalyst for change, and that we need to move forwards not backwards in our thinking. This devoted communist, Abdul Hakkeem, a writer and teacher, nevertheless shook my hand afterwards and said, “your speech was brilliant, although I registered my opposition.” We laughed about our disagreement, and I offered my rejoinder that so many of the revolutions in world history, the Indian freedom struggle and the American civil rights movement to name just two, were led by leaders propelled by their faith. This same gentleman invited a group of us outside for a treat of tea, coffee and cake at a roadside stall. 

I had hoped to have dialogue with people in India about the work Sadhana has been doing, and I got my wish. Through my long conversation with Ramanunniji, and my engagement with the participants at the interfaith gathering, it is abundantly clear that while there may be varied opinions on the matter, Sadhana’s rally cry to India’s progressive Hindus to raise their voices and be included in the resistance to Hindutva is relevant and hits a note.

Thus satisfied to have had the opportunity to dialogue about the questions that occupy my days and nights, I take my leave of this sweet seaside town where Vasco de Gama first landed in 1498.  I spent my last hour in Calicut at the beach, watching a loving family play at the water’s edge. The father was encouraging the little girl to touch her feet to the water but she just clung to her mother’s leg, terrified of the waves, but so obviously secure in the love of her mother and father. I am so moved by this image of a modern Indian family spending Thursday morning spending quality time at the beach. 

Day 8: Chennai

Reflection by Sunita Viswanath, Sadhana Co-Founder & Board Member


This is the city of my birth, and I am spending my time with family. I took my mother and two cousins to Besant Nagar Beach this evening for a very special concert organized by Nityanand Jayaraman (Nity) and T.M. Krishna, and their colleagues. Nity is a respected environmental justice advocate, a journalist, and a community activist. He is also a good friend. Over the past decade, Nity has been involved in many activities for the empowerment of the fishing community at Besant Nagar, where he lives. On several trips, my family has visited an after-school program Nity helped start, and spent a glorious hour playing with the kids. In recent years, Nity has been working closely with Carnatic vocalist T.M.Krishna to organize arts events right at the beach, bringing together classical and folk music, dance and other arts, breaking down the barriers between them, diversifying both artists and audiences. These two visionary activists co-created a festival called Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha, now renamed as Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha. Last night’s concert was part of this festival, and it was an honor to be witness to this labor of love to bring about social unity and communal harmony through groundbreaking movement-building through the arts.

The first act was Paraiattam, a very old traditional dance form of Tamil Nadi. Then an absolute crowd-pleaser: a concert by popular Tamil movie playback singer, Chinmayi.  Last year, Chinmayi came out with a #MeToo accusation against veteran lyricist Vairamuthu, and while she is still facing backlash, she is standing firm. The crowd and organizers gathered yesterday clearly were in solidarity with her.

The highlight of the evening was a concert by Dalit band The Casteless Collective. This high energy band, influenced by hip hop and rap, and also traditional Gana music usually associated with funerals, has recently signed with a record label in the UK.  They greeted the crowd with the usual salutation among Dalit activists, Jai Bhim, and sang rousing songs about justice for the poor and the legacy of Dr. Ambedkar.  When they started singing a song about Modi, the concert was interrupted with a reality check and reminder of the dark hour India is in. Freedom of expression is guaranteed by the Indian constitution, and yet the police arrived, insisting that an end be put to such political songs which criticize the government.

The Casteless Collective performs at Besant Nagar Beach in Chennai, India on January 27th.

Nity, T.M. Krishna, the singer Chinmayi and bands like the Casteless Collective are the hope for India’s future. We in Sadhana pledge absolute solidarity with each of them and all those who are putting their lives and safety on the line for this nation’s constitution and democracy. As many in Tamil Nadu have been chanting in response to the Prime Minister's current visit to their state, #GoBackModi, and we add, #BringBackDemocracy.

Day 9: Hyderabad

Reflection by Sunita Viswanath, Sadhana Co-Founder & Board Member

I’ve now come to Hyderabad, a city where I have a lot of family, and many sweet childhood memories. I met local activists Vivek and Gowri when I was here a year ago. They told me about a progressive organization and event space they were involved in, Lamakaan. They were interested in the work Sadhana was doing and offered to connect me to Lamakaan to give a talk the next time I was in town. I later found out that Lamakaan was co-founded by Biju Mathew, a friend and comrade in the struggle in the United States.

I have attended events at Lamakaan during my days here, and the space is beautiful, vibrant and bustling. There are talks, movie screenings, concerts, book launches and plays; and also an excellent canteen. It is a place for open discussion. I was especially pleased to see that an inter-generational crowd tends to gather here. 

True to his word, Vivek connected me to Lamakaan organizer Nayeem, and this led to my facilitating an interfaith gathering where I could share about the work of Sadhana and ask the approximately 50 people gathered what their thoughts were, and whether they knew of similar work in India.  I especially wanted to know if they were feeling that this was a time of crisis in India, and what the role of Hindus and other people of faith should be in the work to protect democracy.

Almost everyone seemed to agree that minority rights and freedom of speech were in jeopardy. There was a Hindu couple who said they were practicing Hindus and were happy to hear about my work. They didn’t know of any organization like Sadhana, and needed time to think about all I had shared. Several Hindus were very pleased to hear that there was a progressive Hindu organization in America; one said he would share the information with his contacts in America. There were quite a few youth in the room. A young man called Riyaaz said he loved the work Sadhana was doing, especially because his name had the same meaning as Sadhana, and the concept was dear to him. Another young man, a Muslim, said that the people espousing Hindutva were taking advantage of the discomfort that some Hindus feel about identifying openly as Hindus. He said it is very important for progressive Hindus to identify openly as Hindus. One man said we had traveled to cities like Madurai and Hyderabad which were quite safe, and not so supportive of Hindutva. We should have traveled to North India and talked to people there. Another young man who had just graduated high school was very articulate: he said what we needed was a counter-narrative to the Hindutva ideology, and this was basically that we were all Indians, no matter our religion.

There was a group of social work students who had come together. They were also all active in an interfaith group called Rubaroo. One young man from this group spoke about how he and others have tried to bring up issues of caste and religious discrimination in social work classes, but haven’t succeeded. I agreed that social work classes had to address such central issues of social justice.  Sadhana will definitely stay in touch with this group. They were especially interested in our “Safe Conversations” dialogue tool we have been experimenting with in our community outreach.

There were two people, a Hindu man and woman, who were offended by my talk, and accused me of being Hinduphobic. The man said that although I had said I hadn’t found progressive Hindus who were against caste and gender inequality, he could find such organizations in every gully in India. Furthermore, Hindu and Muslims were truly brothers in India, and there was a sense not just of brotherhood but actual oneness among them. This man said there was no problem with freedom of speech in India. He said he didn’t believe my story about the the Casteless Collective’s performance being stopped by the police in Chennai, even though I said I had seen this with my own eyes. The woman went further and said she was a proud Hindu and was very sorry to have met me. She said I was spreading propaganda. She asked how I could say a little Muslim girl was killed in a Hindu temple at the hands of Hindu men (she was talking about Asifa) when there was a current court case and nothing was proven. I had talked about our meeting with Vinod and what he had told us about the situation for Dalits in his village. This woman asked what right I had to share one Dalit’s sad story while omitting all the great advances India had made.

I responded by saying that the beautiful Hinduism that the man was describing was the Hinduism of my heart, the Hinduism I desire to see all around me. However, what I am seeing is an ascendance of Hindu supremacy and a palpable sense of fear and insecurity among minorities and dissenters. Nayeem stepped in as an expert facilitator and kept the discussion going, inviting the rest of the audience members to speak. There was a wonderful woman who said she was a Muslim Indian who had a great love for Hinduism. She commended Sadhana’s work in the United States where she had also lived and done human rights advocacy, but cautioned us about doing such advocacy in a Hindu-majority country.

The final person to speak was my own beloved cousin Padmini. These were her words: “I am from a very traditional and quite orthodox Hindu family. I have three children, two of whom are daughters. When my eldest daughter told us she wanted to marry a Muslim boy, I was very much worried. Perhaps they would ill-treat my daughter. Perhaps she would be one of four wives. I was scared for her. Then I met my son-in-law and found him to be quite a gentleman. And today, all these long years later, I can actually say I love him like my own son. And when I meet Muslims, I have no fear whatsoever. We arranged my younger daughter’s marriage the traditional way. But this son-in-law badly mistreated my daughter, got angry for small reasons, and said she was not Brahminical enough. My daughter is thankfully divorced, but I learned some things the hard way. (Looking at the woman who had been so upset with me) I was like you before, but today I am a better person.”

My cousin was the only person whose statement was met with resounding applause.  It was a moving moment to call the gathering to close. I offered to stay in touch with all the attendees, including the two who were offended by my talk.

While I was talking with the charming members of Rubaroo, I noticed a young woman waiting to talk to me. She waited till I was alone before she came up to me. She said that even though she didn’t identify the same way as me, she was very supportive of what we were doing. She didn’t feel safe enough to speak, but she thanked me for my work. She had tears in her eyes. I asked her to email me, but somehow I don’t think she will.

I will be leaving my birth home for my adopted home. I will carry with me everything that has been shared in these interfaith gatherings I am so grateful to have been a part of: the passion, the fear, the vulnerability, the wisdom, the love and compassion, the despair, and the hope. I will soon be reunited with Aminta, Pratima, and all my Sadhana brothers and sisters. These conversations and experiences in India assure us that the work we are doing and the questions we are asking are relevant and timely. And so, our Sadhana — our Riyaaz — continues. 

A New Year’s Exegesis of the Gaṇeśa Atharvaśīrṣa

By Sadhana member Shashank Rao

This exegesis utilizes Nagesh D. Sonde’s translation, which I have modified slightly by consulting with the language used in the Vedic Center of Greenville’s translation, and also partially rewritten for readability and poetic fit. I am grateful for the work of the translators and the scholarship of those who come before me. I beseech Saraswati, goddess of learning and scholarship, to bless this endeavor and allow me to assist my communities through it.

Text and translation of the Gaṇeśa Atharvaśīrṣa available here.

Image credit: Yohanna Jessup

Introduction

In the coming new year, we at Sadhana meditate on constructive ways to be of use to our communities, and do justice where injustice prevails. As a Hindu group, we look to our spiritual traditions for guidance, ranging from remembering the tremendous labors and feats of bhakti saints to reading the Upaniṣads. The text examined in this article is the one of the minor Upanishadic texts, embedded in the Atharvaveda: the Gaṇeśa Atharvaśīrṣa.

The Gaṇeśa Atharvaśīrṣa expresses radical concepts of the self within the all-pervasive Brahman, and can be read as an Upaniṣad written for all of our communities, rather than just a learned few. The Upaniṣad describes the nature of Gaṇeśa as a god of diverse communities, being the lord of the fearsome hosts of Shiva as well as a benevolent deity that watches over His devotees. He is the son of Shiva and Parvati, as well as the very embodiment of Brahman, transcending his parents. The Gaṇeśa Atharvaśīrṣa is an important bridge between the transcendent and immanent strands of Hinduism, between the seers and the laity, between the sanyāsi (renunciant) and the gṛhasta (householder).

I interpret this text in light of the work of Dr. Anantanand Rambachan, and our shared Advaita Vedanta lineage. His work has been indispensable in building my own understanding of theology, and I also give thanks to Nagesh Sonde, without whose translation and commentary I would not be able to write this exegesis. I hope to offer useful readings of the Atharvśīrṣa that motivate Hindus in our communities and others beyond to seek spiritual guidance that enriches the self and others.

The reason I emphasize this particular Upaniṣad is because it is less visible in Vedanta scholarship and has value as a scriptural text that affirms self-worth, devotion, and a commitment to social justice. Gaṇeśa’s immense popularity across Hindu denominations has great potential to bridge the gap in knowledge and create a foundation for communal harmony in Hindu communities. This resonates with the oft-quoted imperative set out in the Īśāvasya Upaniṣad:

“One who sees all beings in the self alone and the self in all beings, feels no hatred by virtue of that understanding. For the seer of oneness, who knows all beings to be the self, where is delusion (mohaḥ) and sorrow (śokaḥ)?”

Īśāvasya Upaniṣad 6-7 (Rambachan 79)

Situating the Self in Communities

The Gaṇeśa Atharvaśīrṣa opens with a śāṃti pāṭha, a traditional invocation for peace and hopes for understanding. This exegesis, too, seeks the understanding of those join us in the discourse seeking peace, understanding, and self-knowledge. Here, we acknowledge the Self (Atman) as sacred and illuminating of all senses. The Self is the underlying cause of all things, and so we pray for all the limbs and sense organs to be aware of auspicious things. This naturally includes the ability to perceive injustice when it arises, and to combat it; for this too, we pray the body is strong enough to do.

In the śāṃti pāṭha, the four Vedic deities: Indra, Vayu, Tarkśya, and Bṛhaspati are invoked for blessings. Rather than as deities proper, I understand them as the forces of nature. In this way, the Atharvaśīrṣa is quite literally acknowledging the physical environment around us. This prepares us for self-inquiry by rooting us in the moment and awareness of our personal circumstances, while also reminding us to be mindful of the systems that threaten to harm us and others. Brahman (as transcendent self) and the world (as the immanent self) are thus connected.

It is fitting then, that the Atharvaśīrṣa then proceeds to blur the lines between the immanent and transcendent:

“Let my speech, breath, ears, and eyes be strong

As all the limbs in my body.

Let the wisdom of the Vedas and Upaniṣads seep in me

And the wisdom of the wise never denied to me for any reason.

Let Dharma have an unbroken bond with my Self.

Let it abide in me, let it abide in me.” (Sonde 8)

Sonde understands the śāṃti pāṭha as “bringing in communion the human form with the divine essence” (Sonde 9). This insight is particularly powerful because it affirms that humanity is rooted in divinity, and teaches us that absolute self-worth is in the nature of all beings. Also significant is that the Atharvaśīrṣa beseeches the Self as Gaṇeśa to never allow this wisdom, found in the Vedas and Upaniṣads, to be denied to us.

This challenges Brahminical notions of gatekeeping knowledge, denying it to the laity. It is not that the Upanishads deny knowledge to lower castes, but that upper caste individuals have denied them to others. We acknowledge the structural oppression that lower castes face, and recognize the cause as the human, phenomenal act of error. We at Sadhana believe that knowledge is sacred, and that it should not be kept from others. We resolve to spread knowledge, and help others share in its power to uplift people.

It should also be noted that the applications of the lessons of the Gaṇeśa Atharvaśīrṣa are applicable beyond just caste oppression; Gaṇeśa is present in and watches over the LGBTQ+ community, undocumented families, Hindus and non-Hindus alike. Gaṇeśa’s nature as lord of communities challenges clerical supremacy and impels the sādhaka (the practitioner of faith) to honor all equally, and hold them accountable in all spaces, especially shared ones.

Agency is an important aspect of this Upaniṣad, because it places the power to shape one’s world and communities in one’s own hands, which is both a grave and empowering responsibility. Error is fixable, and the illumination of Parabrahman is part of the process toward reconciliation of injustice and moving forward.

The role of the individual in dialogue

The Atharvaśīrṣa  repeatedly establishes that the divinity of Gaṇeśa as Parabrahman is ever-present in all things, keeping in with the Upaniṣadic tradition. The Truth as Gaṇeśa illuminates all senses, and empowers all beings to shape their own destiny and live in harmony with their communities.

“Let my Speech be established in my Mind,

Let my Mind be established in my Speech

Let the resplendent Divinity of God be made known within.

Let the wisdom of the Vedas heard by me never be lost.

That which is enjoined by day and night, that I speak.

I speak of the Truth; let that Truth make me responsive, and the speaker responsive.

Let me be made responsive to the truth, and the speaker as well, do make the speaker responsive.

Let the Truth be propitiously peaceful. Peace, peace, peace.” (Sonde 9)

This passage reminds us of the need and power of dialogic learning, by calling on Truth itself to make itself known to the “speaker” (our partners in discourse and dialogue). Sonde’s interpretation is toward the mystic, inner side of Hindu practice, but it is equally applicable to lay belief, especially considering the Atharvaveda is quite literally the “Veda of atharvāṇa” (atharvāṇa meaning everyday religious practices). Gaṇeśa as Brahman is equally present within and without.

Just as the truth of the Iśāvasya Upanishad eliminates hatred and delusion, the Atharvaśīrṣa speaks of hope that Gaṇeśa will provide the same to us and our communities. Rambachan’s own words echo this sentiment, by establishing that we cannot deny the world’s connection to Brahman, being expressed as Māya. Māya may be transient, but it has value nonetheless, as an expression of Brahman.

“In liberation, the world is not unseen but seen with new eyes; the many is seen as expressions of the One. Nature has an intrinsic value that derives from the fact of its connectedness to brahman.”( Rambachan 140-141)

Similarly, we cannot refute the power that Brahman has to inspire and illuminate, because it is described many times in Keṇa Upaniṣad as the “Eye of the Eye” and “Ear of the Ear” (Keṇa Upaniṣad 1.5-1.9). Without this self, our senses fail to apprehend anything.

We invoke Brahman as Gaṇeśa and Gaṇapati, which both roughly mean “lord of the assembly”. However, I choose translate it as “lord of communities”, because Gaṇeśa is a popular god among most Hindu communities and is invoked almost universally.  

The Atharvaśīrṣa calls on all members of the community, from the four directions and regions high and low to be a part of the journey inward to the Self:

“Let the one who comes from the west be receptive

And the one from the east

And the one from the north

And the one from the south.

Let the one who comes from high places be receptive.

Let the one who comes from low places be receptive.

Let me perceive those who come from all sides.” (Sonde 24)

The text is unequivocal in recognizing that knowledge-seeking and growth is a collective, communal effort. It cannot be done alone, for all parts and expressions of Brahman in Māya are connected to the all-pervasive One, manifest as Gaṇeśa. We can read these “ones” as both gods and people, for they are one in the assembly of Gaṇeśa. In the new year and years to come, let us resolve to listen, to be patient, and to grow with others. Let us invite people from all groups to join us, regardless of their gender, caste, race, or religion. We are enriched by practices of spiritual and cultural camaraderie, and so invite all to join us in this practice.

We cannot leave anyone behind, because wherever there is suffering, all experience it. Gaṇeśa, as the lord of communities (gaṇa), is ever-present in the four elements, the parts of speech, and is sat-cit-ānanda (truth-consciousness-bliss). He presents the opportunity to reconcile with our communities when wrongs have been wrought, and the power to heal. Sadhana resolves to undertake this effort, to help our communities and others heal together, because the sadhaka is para-duḥkha-duḥkhi (one who feels the pain of others as her own).

Transcendence and immanence as One

The Atharvaśīrṣa goes on to describe Gaṇeśa as manifest in the syllable गं (gaṃ) and then describes Him as clothed in red robes, having an elephant’s head, and decorated with red flowers (Sonde 38-40). This description is the acknowledgement of transcendent divinity in His immanence, but it also serves as the Gaṇeśa Gayatri Mantra, a powerful prayer to remind us that divinity, with and without form are equally present and important. The Sanskrit prayer is provided for your use.

ॐ गं गणपतये नमः (oṃ gaṃ gaṇapataye namaḥ)

एकदंताय विद्महे (ekadaṃtāya vidmahe)

वक्रतुंडाय धीमहि (vakratuṃḍāya dhīmahi)

तन्नो दंति प्रचोदयात्। (tanno daṃti pracodayāt)

Salutations to Ganapati, manifest as the syllable “gam”.

I know Them as the one-tusked one

I meditate on the one with a curved trunk

May They enlighten me (Sonde 38).

The phenomenal, apparent qualities of Gaṇeśa are suffused with His mystic qualities. They are not mutually exclusive, and exist together. Gaṇeśa is beyond all dualities, and as such all those who come before Him, regardless of gender, caste, creed, or any other social constructed category, are unmistakably equal. Gaṇeśa is not a purely mystical being, as the text recognizes him in the last verses as the son of Shiva, benevolent to his common believers and Yogis alike. He is a part of a family, He is a community leader, and as such he resonates with all of us. This inspires Sadhana’s belief in community-based activism and faith.

Rambachan’s writing on interdependent living affirms this interpretation:

“Human beings are part of a complex matrix that includes ancestors, teachers, other than human living beings, and the elements. Our dependence on this matrix for our well-being requires, as the Bhagavadgītā explains so eloquently, that we contribute to its sustenance through our generosity to others. This understanding of interdependence is deepened by the Advaita teaching that the self and world are not-two” (Rambachan 85).

Just as Gaṇeśa sustains all things through His very nature as Brahman, uniting and equalizing, we must always remember that we live in a community together and that no person is free of responsibility to it. That means that we must see learning and knowledge as the ultimate offering of justice, for justice cannot be done if our communities do not know themselves and others.

The Gaṇeśa Atharvaśīrṣa provides us with a way to challenge our existing prejudices and unjust systems, to acknowledge that our communities are diverse but united in life and the divinity of Gaṇeśa. In the new year, we invite Hindu communities and all communities to resolve to learn together, to honor individuals in diversity, and uphold universal access to wisdom.

Bibliography:

Sonde, Nagesh. Sri Ganapati Atharva Sheersha: Originals in Sanskrit, Translated in English with Commentary. Nagesh D. Sonde, 2004.

Rambachan, Anantanand. A Hindu Theology of Liberation: Not-Two Is Not One (SUNY Series in Religious Studies). State University of New York Press. Kindle Edition.