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.

Supporting Our Loved Ones at the Border

by Tahil Sharma, Sadhana LA Area Coordinator

I am deeply hurt and enraged as I hear that a 7 year old girl has lost her life in detention by Border Patrol. The same forces that I stood in front of at the San Diego border protesting their mistreatment and injustice of undocumented and asylum-seeking communities. The young girl from Guatemala who died in the New Mexico desert is just one of many victims who we raise up in prayer and mercy to the Divine as her death speaks volumes about the carelessness and the mistreatment of individuals seeking opportunity in the United States. 

As a progressive Hindu who stood at the front lines of a mass demonstration, people wondered why it took hundreds of clergy the time and energy it did to kneel and pray and sing songs in front of rows of over-militarized and emotionally exhausted federal law enforcement officers. For me, it is because I speak as a Hindu and a Sikh, two communities who share long and obstacle-ridden histories in making this country their home. My privileges of being born here drive me to show solidarity and help the marginalized of any community so that they may be able to experience the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness that they deserve as human being. And as siblings in destiny, we must look to another another for guidance and support during times of chaos and division to see that in the center of that person's soul exists a piece of us. 

“Strive constantly for the welfare and interconnectedness of the world. By devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life. Do your work with the welfare of others always in mind.”

- Bhagavad Gita 3:19-20

This is why our Sanatan Dharma is built on the foundations of service and pluralism... Because it is meant to serve one and all. And has the human vessels that are capable of being the lived expression of dharma and karma, we must stop at nothing to strive for the compassion justice of every living create that sets foot on this earth. So when a 7 year old dies of exhaustion and dehydration due to an apathetic agency, our उत्तरदायित्व (uttardayitva) or responsibility becomes clear: To abhor and condemn the actions of government representing us as these tragedies unfold and being the Sadhakas that stand on the front lines to call for accountability. We further prescribe to our faith by unleashing the highest level of daan and daya to be a part of every solution that absolves any individual from marginalization and oppression.  

For this reason, as a further response, I have started a fundraiser on GoFundMe to support folks in the caravan. Please donate and share are you are able and make a difference. https://www.gofundme.com/i-marched-now-i-will-do-more

Support Sadhana on #GivingTuesday

तदेतत्त्रयँ शिक्षेद् दमं दानं दयामिति

tadevattrayam shikshed damam dānam dayāmiti

“Learn these three [virtues] - self restraint, charity and compassion for all life.”

- Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 5.2.3 (c. 700 BC)

Dāna, or selfless giving, is an integral part of our dharma (duty) as Hindus. Our sacred texts repeatedly extol the value of dāna as a guiding value for human life. 2018 was a year of growth for Sadhana, across our three areas of seva (service), advocacy, and community-building. From being the only Hindu organization in the Poor People’s Campaign, to presenting at the Parliament of World’s Religions in Toronto, to celebrating Diwali in Brooklyn Borough Hall for the first time, 2018 brought many new opportunities and relationships. Since 2011, Sadhana has been one of the only organizations working both in Hindu communities and social justice spaces to bring our faith into conversation with the pressing social, political, environmental, and economic issues of our time.

We have ambitious goals for 2019 — but we can’t achieve them without your help!

This #GivingTuesday, consider donating any amount you can to Sadhana. 

$20 will fund materials for a Sadhana Salon.
$50 will fund puja offerings for a Sadhana Satsangh.
$100 will fund one road trip to a college to speak to Hindu students about connecting their faith to community service.
$150 will fund one of our Project Prithvi beach clean-ups at Jamaica Bay, NY.
$500 or more will help us achieve our goal of hiring a staff person to build Sadhana in 2019.

Please make a donation of any amount possible to Sadhana, a much needed platform for Hindus of conscience to unite in the service of justice for all.

Dhanyavad. Thank you!

A Deepavali Reflection on Ignorance & Wisdom

By Shashank Rao, active Sadhana member

Today, on the occasion of Deepavali, I would like to share a meditation on the meaning of the holiday. First, here are two companion poems from the famous Kashmiri saint-poet, Lal Ded, also known as Lalleshwari.

Who’s asleep and who’s awake? 
What is that lake in the sky
from which a rain of nectar is falling?
What is the offering that Shiva loves most? 
What is that Supreme Word you’re looking for
in the hermit’s coded dictionary? (135)

The mind’s asleep. When it outgrows itself, it will awake. 
The five organs are the lake in the sky
from which a rain of nectar is falling. 
The offering Shiva loves most is knowledge of Self. 
The Supreme Word you’re looking for
is Shiva Yourself. (136)

From I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Dĕd (Penguin Classics). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition. Translation by Ranjit Hoskote.

In this poem, Lal Ded extols the virtue of knowledge (also known as ज्ञाना - jñana), particularly of self-knowledge. It is not only an act of self-inquiry, but also an act of worship for the enlightened. The five senses are not an obstacle but the means to understanding, to seek Shiva everywhere and see Their grace in all things, described as “nectar”. The partaking of that nectar allows one to see that Shiva as God is not separate from us on earth and in life, but in fact is embodied in us. The mind is asleep, but awakens when it experiences the knowledge that expands its understanding of the world.

To offer the knowledge of oneself to the Divine, recognizing it within and without, is a kind of holy mercy. It is mercy and salvation to those trapped by ignorance of the Self and by the acts stemming from the ignorance of others. Lal Ded, as a woman in Kashmir, is able to affirm her value through her wisdom, and even in death, has earned the love her people. Her poems continue to inspire and uplift the Kashmiri people, regardless of religion, and remind them of their intrinsic capacity to learn and be free. Truly, it is ignorance that binds one and all to the cycle of suffering and rebirth.

This meditation on ignorance is a theme of Deepavali, one with which I was raised. Diwali is not simply a festival of lights, but rather celebrates the victory of redemptory wisdom over ephemeral and ultimately impermanent ignorance. Whether we call this the victory of light over darkness or good over evil, this theme is present in the many stories told to commemorate Diwali.

In the South Indian tradition, we remember the victory of Krishna over Narakasura, an abusive and tyrannical king who captured 10,000 women to be his wives. In the final battle between the two, Narakasura knows that he is fighting with God and metaphorically with himself. Recognizing the divinity of Krishna allows him to see it within himself, and so he pleads with Krishna for mercy. Krishna acknowledges Narakasura as a full being, and hears him out.

Here, knowledge is expressed again as mercy to not only oneself but also to others. It does not mean that Narakasura forgets his abuses of power and patriarchy, but rather that he admits to them. He asks Krishna that if he takes his life, let it be a day for women to celebrate their freedom from abuse and control by men and for all to feast on the occasion. Remembering the spirit of this holiday, I give thanks to the power of wisdom to liberate and redeem, to remind us of the inherent value of all beings. Even in our darkest hours, we are able to see the truth.

The lighting of the diyas symbolizes the illumination of wisdom, and how it penetrates the darkness of ignorance. Though a diya is small, it is a ray of divine hope for all those who see and hold them. Wherever a diya may be lit, in the home of Hindus celebrating the return of Lord Rama, in the home of Sikhs on the occasion of Bandi Chhor Divas, or in any other place, the diya’s light glows the same. Knowledge appears in diverse forms, and that should be celebrated, not snuffed out. A diya offers the soft light of the flame, hoping to warm the hearts of communities and bring them closer together with the light of wisdom, a value worth celebrating.

The midterm elections yesterday were a kind of lighting of diyas in Congress, and it gives me hope that we may be able come out of the state of ignorance that we face as a nation. The election of a diverse set of Democrats from all backgrounds helps to check the violent ignorance of the Trump administration. They may not be the "blue wave" some hoped for, but they are powerful victories in their own ways. They, too, are lamps to light their communities and give the American people hope.

Inborn in every person, regardless of their race, religion, sexuality, gender identity, and so on, is the ability not only to experience liberatory knowledge to uplift themselves, but also to illuminate the world and bring hope to the lives of others.

ಎಲ್ಲರಿಗೂ ದೀಪಾವಳಿ ಶುಭಾಶಯಗಳು, Wishing all a Happy Deepavali, and that it be filled with light and time spent among friends and family.

A Day Before Diwali, Head to the Voting Booth!

A Day Before Diwali, Head to the Voting Booth!
Why It's Important for Hindu Americans to Vote

by Nikhil Mandalaparthy, Sadhana board member

On Tuesday, November 6th, millions of Americans across the United States will turn out to vote in what is sure to be a historic election. With a population of nearly 3 million, Hindu Americans are one of the fastest-growing demographic groups in the nation. Yet, our community is also one of the least likely to vote. These midterm elections, I especially encourage Hindu Americans to make their voice heard.

Ours is a fairly recent community. We are mostly immigrants, or come from immigrant homes. We come from South Asia, the Caribbean, east Africa, southeast Asia, and indeed all over the world. Racism and xenophobia are not new to the immigrant experience, but the wave of hate and bigotry directed against our families, communities, and places of worship in recent years is truly dangerous. I remember last year’s shooting of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, the young Hindu man from Kansas. From last week’s attempted shooting at the African American First Baptist Church in Kentucky to the recent tragedy at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue, we must stand together. Our Muslim and Sikh brothers and sisters have been particularly affected by increasing racism and xenophobia. In a popular Gujarati bhajan, 15th-century poet Narsi Mehta reminds us that the mark of a truly religious person is empathizing with the suffering of others: vaishnav jan to tene kahiye je peed paraayi jaane re. “Call that person a Vaishnava, who understands the pain of others.” There is no safety without solidarity, and one way to make our voices heard is through voting.

I urge all eligible Hindu Americans to cast their vote next week. This year, voting takes place just a day before Diwali. As we prepare to light our firecrackers and diyas with friends and family this year, let us also remember our commitments to a just and peaceful world. Hinduism is marked by profound traditions of tolerance and pluralism. Our tradition tells us “atithi devo bhava”, meaning “be one for whom a guest is God”. At a time when immigrants and refugees are targeted and demonized in political rhetoric, let us remember that we too are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants, and let that feeling of empathy guide our actions. Our holy scriptures proclaim “vasudhaiva kutumbakam,” meaning “the world is one family.” On November 6th, let us vote to make that world a reality—to make the America we live in an inclusive, welcoming, and prosperous nation.

For Immediate Release: Despite Threats, Sadhana Hosts Panel at Parliament of World Religions with Swami Agnivesh

Monday Nov 5, 2018

For Immediate Release:

Despite Threats, Sadhana Hosts Panel at Parliament of World Religions with Swami Agnivesh

Press contacts:
Sunita Viswanath, sunita@sunitav.net; 917-518-2441
(Swami Agnivesh is available for interview through Sunita.)
Nikhil Mandalaparthy, nikhilm97@gmail.com 
Gautham Reddy, gautham.m.reddy@gmail.com 

Yesterday evening, Sadhana hosted its first ever panel at the Parliament of World Religions (PWR) in Toronto. The panel, entitled, "The Co-Creative Dance of Dharma and Justice: Building a Progressive Hinduism," was moderated by Sadhana cofounder Sunita Viswanath and the panelists were lifelong human rights activist and Arya Samaj leader Swami Agnivesh and Sadhana board members Gautham Reddy and Nikhil Mandalaparthy. Swami Agnivesh is particularly well-known for his tireless work to end bonded labor, and for his vocal advocacy against Hindutva (Hindu nationalism). Swami Agnivesh has been arrested at least 11 times for his human rights activism and has been beaten up twice in recent months by Hindutva mobs.

Sadhana was informed by PWR leadership that they had received many emails from Hindu conference attendees who see Swami Agnivesh as an anti-Hindu who should not be participating in the conference. The most recent emails received threatened to disrupt any attempt by Swami Agnivesh to speak at the conference.

Sadhana's panel was the first opportunity for Swami Agnivesh to speak at the conference. Sadhana is grateful to PWR for providing special security at our session, and doing everything possible to ensure Swamiji's safety and defend his right to speak.  

In spite of the threats, Sadhana's panel was very well-attended and took place with no disturbance.  Sunita Viswanath opened the panel by discussing Sadhana's work in the Hindu community to encourage Hindus to connect their faith to social justice, and to add a Hindu voice and presence to interfaith initiatives for social justice. Sunita spoke about the urgency for all faiths, including Hinduism, to stand up to the extremists of their faith. 

Gautham Reddy spoke about Sadhana's political advocacy against social injustice broadly, and against Hindu nationalism (Hindutva) in particular. He stated, "We believe it is the responsibility of every Hindu to speak out against the corrupting presence of Hindutva in our temples, schools, and community organizations. We cannot let the RSS, VHP, and BJP hijack our religious symbols and sacred teachings. We must resist the politics of fear." 

Nikhil Mandalaparthy spoke about Sadhana's work as a reform Hindu organization, for instance, pujas (worship rituals) and ceremonies which have no place for caste, and are earth-honoring and egalitarian.  He said, "Sadhana's reform work is directed at the way we as Hindus think about and practice our faith.... Our reform work is in many ways new, creative, constructive, almost experimental work; but it is not without precedent. We see ourselves as part of a tradition of Hindu reform movements and individual voices--of which there have been many in the past--calling out against injustice from within our traditions. We derive a lot of strength from the past as we move forward in our reform and advocacy."

Swami Agnivesh identified as a proud Hindu and gave an impassioned call to action to all Hindus, saying, "It is high time that those who are really proud to be a Hindu should find out what it really means because Hinduism today is under threat. Like most other religions, there are hijackers from within the religion, and these hijackers are bringing about all sorts of violence, sectarianism, parochialism, corruption in the name of religion."

The audience included many Sikhs because the Sikh community considers Swami Agnivesh a strong ally and brother. In fact, Swamiji spoke at the end of the one hour panel about the horrific massacre of about 30,000 Sikhs in Delhi in 1984. After the panel, Swamiji was the guest of honor at a prayer vigil for all the Sikhs who lost their lives in 1984.

Swami Agnivesh will speak at the opening plenary of the conference on the morning of Tuesday, November 6th, 9 am - 12 am. PWR has promised Swamiji extra security for that morning. And what is more, the Sikh conference attendees have also promised to stand by Swamiji's side throughout the conference to ensure his safety.

  • Video of the entire panel

  • Photographs from the panel

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  • Photographs at the Sikh Prayer Vigil

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Reflections on Guru-Disciple Relationship and #MeToo

The concept of the guru-shishya parampara is an ancient and venerable aspect of the Hindu tradition. From a young age, we are taught that the relationship between a teacher and a student is a sacred bond--guru sakshat parabrahma, meaning "the teacher is none other than the divine." It is believed that students will not be able to achieve success in their education without the blessings and guidance of a guru. In the Hindu calendar, the festival of Guru Purnima is dedicated to honoring the numerous teachers that shape our lives.

Yet even as we regard the guru-shishya tradition as a profound spiritual connection, we cannot forget that it is also a social relationship. And as with any social relationship, this connection is deeply conditioned by dynamics of power and questions of inequality. For as long as it has existed, the guru-shishya parampara has been embedded in the realities of gender and caste.

In the recent context of #MeToo, the world of South Indian classical music (Carnatic music) has heard many disturbing stories of gurus who have exploited their positions of respect and authority to take advantage of their disciples. These immoral abuses are intolerable for any spiritually-minded person. Recently, over 500 people signed onto a statement condemning sexual harassment, abuse, and assault in the music community. The Chennai Music Academy, the premier institution of Carnatic music, has made the bold decision to stand with survivors and take allegations of sexual harassment seriously. The Academy has been investigating complaints and has dropped 7 respected musicians and gurus from the December concert season.

How do we look for safety and accountability in the sacred bond between guru and shishya, between teacher and student? Is it possible for Hindus to honor the ideal aspects of this relationship while remaining alert to the realities of abuse and inequality? How do we support and stand with survivors in our own communities? Sadhana asked gurus and students in our community to grapple with some of these difficult questions and share their reflections on this matter.


Sameer Gupta:

Co-founder of Brooklyn Raga Massive (a 501(c)(3) artist collective dedicated to Indian Classical and Raga-Inspired music).

The #MeToo movement in Indian Classical Music is long overdue and I am glad for the multitude of voices rising up to help stop this horrible age old trend of abuse and harassment. We accept Indian Classical music as a profound musical tradition capable of elevating our consciousness towards sacred heights. But the historic and systematic way in which the leaders of our music, our Gurus, are perceived to be closer to 'Divinity' is a problem. When we place any person above another, it opens a door towards injustices like assault and abuse of power and all too often those actions are defended, ignored and sometimes even accepted.

We as a community of teaching artists need to take a critical look at how our music has historically and systematically contributed to patriarchy and misogyny within Indian Classical music. Most importantly we should consider the flaws in how we have built the 'Pillar of Guru-Shishya Parampara." We need to consider if our music is better served without one person ever being seen as closer to the 'Divine.' Do we give our gurus freedom to possibly act in morally questionable ways? Any group that puts a person or group of people in a position of access to the 'Divine' in a way that others are not sadly allows for those individual's gross misconduct and abuse of power among the group at large. Now it is clear that the abuse of power has run unchecked among our communities of Indian Classical music supporters for far too long. It must stop and we are the ones to stop it.

Ma Mokshapriya Shakti, PhD:

Spiritual advisor and certified yoga teacher, Ma Yogashakti International Mission

The relationship between guru and disciple is very special. When a guru takes on a disciple or sishya it is her duty to empower the disciple to learn and grow.  The ancient tradition of guru-sishya as it is practiced in modern times, is not healthy for either guru or disciple. I am positive that the sages of old did not wish this beautiful tradition to be interpreted and practiced in the way it currently is.

Yes, Guru is Brahma. God resides in all!  It is every soul’s desire to return to the source from which we came. This is why religions, cults, and gurus have such powerful influence over humanity. However, each soul came to this incarnation with a purpose or a goal. It is the duty of the Guru to empower the disciple to seek that goal in order to fulfill the desire of the soul. Through meditation and psychic abilities attained through study, practice, and discipline, the guru has insight about what that disciple needs and the path that is the most beneficial.

Now comes the difficulty. The disciple’s intense desire to fulfill the soul’s journey causes her to be willing to hand her power over to the guru. Many times people are insistent upon this because through guru’s grace it seems that they would not need to do all the hard work. The tradition of ishvarapranidhana—bowing down to god or guru—is not done to honor either of these beings. Its purpose is to conquer the ego, which prevents us from attaining our goals. Unless we can bow down to a higher force, spiritual learning cannot take place.

The guru is in a very difficult position. On one hand, she has to empower the student to seek her own path; on the other, she has to discourage the stubborn ego that keeps her from the path. As the students get closer to their soul’s desires, they begin to attribute more power to the guru. This often makes them think that surrender to their guru is needed.

Everyone in human form will have weaknesses. When this relationship begins to get out-of-balance, it begins to feed the ego weaknesses of both the student and the guru. The guru feels powerful, and the student feels she must give up her power in order to keep growing. Abuse may, and does, happen frequently. Most gurus did not take on this role to abuse others, it is this imbalanced power dynamic that causes the ego to arise. We must understand the cause, so that we can be aware and correct it.

The guru-sishya relationship is very important and should not be abandoned, but changes need to be made.  A guru is a guide—a human guide that has strengths and weaknesses, but practices and lives the path. The relationship between disciple and guru should be one of respect, and also open to interaction. The disciple needs to understand that knowledge and power is channeled through the guru from a divine source and does not originate within the person. Divine power comes in the forms of love, understanding and acceptance, not through control.

Many times, abused disciples make elaborate excuses for the guru’s inappropriate actions. Both guru and sishya have equal responsibility. My guru, Mataji, once told to me that if God came down and told her to do something that she did not feel was appropriate, she would not do it. We are each responsible for our own evolution.

Students must always have respectful love for the teacher. Through respect, you raise your own consciousness which allows you to receive wisdom both subconsciously and unconsciously. In turn, the teacher must practice what they teach, because teaching comes more through example than words.

In the ultimate reality, each person we meet is our guru, because we learn from every interaction. The sishya who has a guru is very blessed, and a guru who sees disciples growing and blossoming is also very blessed. It is a mutual love that is very special and profound.

The disciple has more power than than she realizes, because she has the ability to carefully choose her own guru. However, the guru has to agree to take each disciple who comes to her. We are all on the journey to self-actualization and self-realization, some of us are further along the path only.

“Oh, if you only knew yourselves! You are souls; you are Gods. If ever I feel like blaspheming, it is when I call you man.” —Swami Vivekananda

Aditi Dhruv:

Dancer, Yoga teacher, MA candidate in Ethics and Society at Fordham University

As a student of dance and yoga, and a teacher of yoga, I'm very distressed to hear about the multiple abuse allegations that have been happening for years. I first need to say that I have the "lucky" privilege of never being assaulted or abused by any teacher/guru so I cannot speak from personal experience as a survivor. I do not presume to speak for them. I support, believe and stand by all survivors of assault and abuse, wherever they may be and in whatever field.

I abhor any person who assumes a certitude of knowledge. As our scriptures tell us, eternal knowledge has always existed and will continue after us. Gurus teach this knowledge to their students and for that we are all fortunate. But a guru’s knowledge does not make her the Supreme Knower. My role as a yoga teacher is not one of knowing the Truth, but rather, a guide to show others the path toward knowledge. I am not so humble as to say I don't know anything about yoga, but I also can admit I don't know everything. I can guide and suggest but it is also my job to stop when the student is no longer receiving knowledge or has surpassed my own knowledge.

When the guru is mistaken for a “Divine Supreme Knower,” hierarchies of power are created and the risk of abuse becomes possible. Hierarchy cannot exist without both players involved - the one with power and the one without. The burden of change is not on the one without power - the responsibility is on the one with power. Power, like any other human construct, can be used for good or bad. The one who holds power has the responsibility to ethically discern how and when to exert this power.

In my opinion, placing our faith in scriptures and texts alone is problematic because we run the risk of taking every word literally. This allows no room for growth in human knowledge and experience. As teachers, people with power, we must be vigilant of how our interpretations of the text are understood. We must not unwittingly perpetrate and perpetuate structures of abuse.

Approaching a teacher as a student, admitting that you do not know something is an expression of vulnerability. Teachers cannot take advantage of this. A teacher making sexual comments, implying sexual activity or brazenly touching in a sexual manner is abuse of power and must be held accountable by law and by social mores. There is no way around that, there is no way to qualify that, and there ought not to be a whispering away of it. Every survivor who has courageously spoken their truth and told their experiences has brought 'dirty' and ‘secret’ interactions to light. Once uncovered and seen, it cannot be unseen. For every survivor who has spoken, I know there are many more who haven't, afraid of backlash and social stigma.  Teachers, those of us in power, must also stand up and speak out in support of survivors. I am grateful for people like TM Krishna and Anita Ratnam but more of us need to stand with survivors. Enough! Time's up!

Ananya Vajpeyi:

Ananya Vajpeyi is an Indian scholar, academic, columnist, and advocate for social justice. In recent years, she has become involved with a campaign to democratize and diversify the classical arts in Chennai; she has been writing about Carnatic music since 2016.

I am an early signatory — a first responder if you like — to the statement mentioned above (even though I am not a practitioner of Carnatic Music).

In the ancient world, in Sanskrit, words for teaching-learning, pedagogy-discipline, nurture-mastery, education-submission, all spring from the same roots. While the bond between teacher and student is indeed special and close, I think the recognition of power being embedded in and structuring of this relationship is quite clear in the etymology itself. Also, while occasionally you find narratives of teacher-student dyads that break caste rules, it’s not easy to find narratives about women who are either teachers or students in the patriarchal and brahminical universe of Sanskrit literature (female intellectuals are sometimes mentioned, but very rarely).

Nonetheless women today are very much a part of the entire educational system of modern India as well as of the practice and pedagogy of the so-called classical arts. While they like men are trained with the guru-sishya ideal in mind, how exactly that is to work across gender difference is not specified either by traditional protocols (which have little or no reference to women anyway), or by the rules of the modern academy (where, as we are discovering, gender discrimination, patriarchal domination and sexual harassment are rampant). The shocking revelations from the Carnatic Me Too discourse of the past few weeks / months surely show up the complicity, silence and sexism that hide in the light of the guru-sishya parampara. Girls and women — across caste and class — are exposed and vulnerable to coercion, abuse and violence in the name of obedience to the guru.

Ranajit Guha long ago identified Hindu cultural values like Bhakti and Seva as responsible in some measure for creating the conditions for colonialism: it’s a disposition, if you like, marked by devotion and servitude that then has grave economic and political consequences. Autonomy, swaraj, is hard won in such a scenario and this extends all the way from politics to the arts. The Self-Respect movements in the South throughout the 20th century were about flattening out hierarchies in the social sphere but somehow the status of women got left out or marginalized even in these powerful transformations that have ushered in political modernity.

Arguably the path to liberation in the metaphysical sense is open to all in Hindu thought, women can be seekers and can find spiritual and existential emancipation and enlightenment. But it is living here and now in this world, embedded and enmeshed in the realities of social relations and institutional power structures, that we need to find greater room, greater participation and greater justice for the female half of humanity. A quest of this kind will only strengthen our arts and sciences, not undermine them.

It’s crucial to recognize that while there is naturally a flow of knowledge from the teacher (who knows more) to the student (who knows less); while this flow is directional and based on a the fact that the teacher and the taught DO NOT stand on the same plane, they ARE at different — unequal — levels of aptitude, competence, expertise and so on — this practical disciplinary inequality (usually underscored by a generational difference) does not obviate other kinds of equality that must be assumed and observed in a modern democracy which guarantees equal citizenship, gender parity and universal human rights. Being a teacher is no license to take advantage of students and young people who come to you to learn. Learning cannot happen where violence exists between teacher and taught.

I could not be who I am or do what I do without my teachers: men and women. But I have been fortunate to relate to my teachers as falling somewhere between beloved parents and close friends. All around me women have not been so lucky (and this is true even of the West, not just India). Sexual exploitation in ALL spheres of activity has to be called out and halted, reparations and reconciliation must occur, equality and respect must be negotiated, and we have to move forward into a new set of norms and values regulating our pedagogical spaces.

Anonymous, Carnatic musician and sociology scholar:

I feel uncomfortable answering the question as it is framed and believe we should take a more intersectional approach. Many castes have been historically denied the ability to even claim discipleship through the guru-sishya tradition. Today we see how many communities are systematically excluded from studying Carnatic music and the classical arts. So I believe these questions around the guru and sishya relationship limit our ability to think about who the real victims of this system are. I think we should use this opportunity to talk about how our glib assumptions about who is a sexual predator might be loaded with class and caste biases. The middle class and upper-caste woman is always depicted by our society as being in danger of being assaulted by rural, lower-caste, and lower-class men. The recent allegations at the Chennai Music Academy challenges us to seriously question these assumptions. We need to examine why sexual assault gets more visibility when it happens to an upper-caste middle-class woman. When we consider questions of power in relation to the guru-sishya parampara, we can’t avoid thinking about the ways it has enabled exclusion and caste hierarchy in our communities.

V.V. Raman:

Emeritus Professor of Physics and Humanities at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a member of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science

I have never been a guru to anyone, nor am I writing this as a guru. Invoking ancient frameworks which gave us solace and feelings of cultural superiority may not be the best way to confront this sad situation. What we are witnessing is not an aberration but a revelation of thus far cleverly hidden truths about male (mis)behavior over the ages in all cultures. We need to move forward with fresh enlightened resolutions and visions never more to engage in such deplorable behavior, not try to hang on to old paradigms which have been infected over the centuries. We need to recall and revere the wisdom teachings of our ancestors, and act upon them, not just experience cultural pride while whitewashing some of the horrors that have emerged in our history. This is the task of people of all cultures and creeds. Humanity is in dire need of an enlightened resurgence.

Hari Nott:

Hindustani Classical singer, teacher and student based in Brooklyn, NY

Abuse of power is unacceptable in any walk of life.  I am glad that Music Academy has taken a bold action to do right. I am glad that as humanity we have finally(!)) come to point where we can speak up and hold people to account.   I find Indian philosophy, beliefs and actions advanced in some areas and regressive in others.  There have been people who have been preaching love, understanding and universality for many millennia.  But this is also a society that carries out, tolerates, defends, explains away egregious acts of violence, intimidation and suppression.  There are bad actors everywhere, but in India in the name of tradition they have gotten away with murder.

Indian classical music has not escaped this phenomenon. It is rooted in a highly refined foundation of aesthetics and tradition, like the guru-shishya parampara - I mean what a way to experience learning.  A good Guru not only teaches music, but fills your heart with love, awareness and oneness with nature.  He / she holds your hands and leads you down a path of self discovery and glimpses of divine.  When true, there is no bond stronger between that of a guru & sishya.  I am not surprised that even this tradition has its share of bad actors.  I am not sure what force of nature and reasoning would allow a person to act in ways that interminably hurts another soul, and that too of a person who has placed trust on them.  That person cannot be a artist.  Art without a soul is no art.

Bertie Kibreah:

Tabla drummer, Bengali folk musician, PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of Chicago

Of the most momentous aspects of #MeToo is its ability to draw critical attention to longstanding issues regarding sexual harassment and assault, allowing not only for exceptional candor and camaraderie in the process, but across a pervasive range of fields including media, fashion, finance, government, sports, the military, the church, and the entertainment industry. With regard to time-honored forms of South Asian pedagogy, #MeToo also reminds us that the venerable tradition of guru-shishya-parampara not only continues to be sabotaged by disturbing breaches of authority with regard to issues of gender and caste, but also that these issues are not limited to particularly Hindu or particularly classical worldviews of music. Indeed, the most vital aspects of guru-shishya-parampara—its dimensions of intimacy, deference, commitment, and austerity—are found through the Indian Subcontinent, or wherever the traditional arts of South Asia are disseminated and flourish. As such, the sexual transgressions which defile guru-shishya-parampara are not limited to the negotiations of Hindu gurus and their disciples, but those of any religious persuasion involved in the tradition, which also include other virtuosic musical forms in South Asia, such as a range of vernacular arts, where this didactic custom similarly thrives.

My own research on folk and devotional music performance in Bangladesh has been both a rewarding and challenging experience and, while I have certainly faced many personal obstacles, I recognize my ability to traverse deep rural pockets of the country for all-night song programs has been partially accorded to me by my position as a male observer-performer in a Muslim-dominated region. This privilege, however, has also led me to realize that professionalized artists-practitioners of devotional music in Bangladesh, such as the baul and boyati communities, while themselves members of beautifully egalitarian traditions, are no less affected by the betrayal of authority which guru-shishya-parampara can propagate.

The larger network of baul musicians in Bengal advocate a particularly humanistic form of regional devotionality and mixed-gender ritual worship that has long enamored littérateurs and the bourgeoise alike, ultimately helping to define Bengali-ness in pivotal moments of modern history. The boyati community, tied to the institutions of Sufism, have developed a penchant for open-ended, dialectical performance which has instigated, amongst other things, the inclusion of female Muslim performers on traditional regional outdoors stages, which had hitherto been unheard of. With irony, both communities have developed art forms which are critical and self-aware of the very acts of impropriety which fester in their own learning environments.

To be sure, while each community has advocated their own idiosyncratic language and style, both are very much tied to guru-shishya-parampara through tactics of musical preservation, and this highlights an even more complicated and dangerous power-gender dynamic which #MeToo cautions. The baul, while embracing deeply Hindu constructions of metaphysics and theology, is not a member of a Hindu devotional tradition at all. The female Muslim boyati may discuss Muslim or Hindu arguments on the performative debate dais, but may not be subjected to issues of caste themselves. While this positionality may seem freeing, both can experience other kinds of personal violations which many performers surely must, as they prepare for long and fruitful stage careers.

Beyond both the Indian classical music domain, or intrinsically Hindu notions of knowledge access, guru-shishya-parampara is a double-edged sword because it signifies a bond that dispassionately fosters the kind of rigorous immersion required for mastery of South Asian aesthetics, yet can unfortunately tolerate grave wrongdoings through its formidable dynamics, which espouse confidential and exhaustive training. Regardless of how one might perceive the guru with regard to divinity, guru-shishya-parampara in any tradition has to reinforce the agency given to both guru and disciple in the process, which ought to maintain respect while demarcating lines of behavioral acceptability from the beginning of the journey together.

(Cover image source: Times of India)

Opportunities to Meet Swami Agnivesh

Swami Agnivesh is a radical monk and a leader in the Arya Samaj who has devoted his life to human rights of the most oppressed and advocacy against bonded labour. He has been vocal in his advocacy against Hindu nationalism (Hindutva). This is a video he made for Sadhana recently, detailing the way he was beaten up twice recently by Hindu mobs.

Swamiji is traveling for the Parliament of World Religions, and Sadhana has helped organize these events with him. We hope many of you will attend.

NOVEMBER 4
Swami Agnivesh will be a panelist on Sadhana’s panel at the Parliament of World Religions, “The Co-Creative Dance of Dharma and Justice: The Movement of Progressive Hinduism” on Sunday November 4, 6 -7 pm, Room 605.

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NOVEMBER 9
Swami Agnivesh will be in conversation with Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, director of the Kairos Center and co-chair of Poor People’s Campaign.

November 9, 11:30 am - 1 pm
The People’s Forum, 320 W 37th Street

This conversation is cosponsored by Sadhana, and will be filmed.

NOVEMBER 9  Swami Agnivesh will participate in:  An Interfaith Discussion on   Religious Activism   Organized by NYU’s South Asia Society and cosponsored by Sadhana.  November 9, 5:30 - 7 pm 14a Washington Mews, NYC   RSVP  Here

NOVEMBER 9
Swami Agnivesh will participate in:
An Interfaith Discussion on Religious Activism
Organized by NYU’s South Asia Society and cosponsored by Sadhana.
November 9, 5:30 - 7 pm
14a Washington Mews, NYC

RSVP Here

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NOVEMBER 12
Dr. John Thatamanil, professor at Union Theological Seminary and advisory board member of Sadhana will be in conversation with both Swami Agnivesh and human rights activist Ruchira Gupta. The event is cosponsored by Sadhana.

Monday November 12, 6:30 - 8:30 pm
James Chapel, Union Theological Seminary
3041 Broadway at 121st Street, NYC
Please RSVP here.

Flood Relief for Trinidad

Over the past week, parts of Trinidad experienced catastrophic flooding as a result of relentless rain. The government has declared a national disaster, and over 150,000 people have been affected so far, and that number is expected to increase. Shaanti Bhavan Mandir is an Indo-Caribbean Hindu temple in Queens, NY that Sadhana works closely with. This temple’s motto is “Manav Seva Madhav Seva” which means service to humanity is service to God. Shaanti Bhavan Mandir sent this appeal to all their congregants today:

There is severe flooding in the North East and Central parts of the Trinidad. Over one hundred and fifty thousand people were affected by the massive volume of water that entered their homes. In one particular housing development in La Horquetta, the water was up to the windows, while in Caroni Village the river bank broke, causing more devastation. The residents lost everything since the water rose very quickly and they had to fight for survival. As the clean up starts in those areas where the flood water is starting to recede, many other areas still continues to be flooded by the persistent rainfall.

Some of Shaanti Bhavan Mandir’s community members hail from Trinidad and have family members suffering in Caroni Village. Shaanti Bhavan Mandir has launched an appeal, and will make sure that all money raised goes directly to those most in need in Caroni Village in Trinidad. These photographs taken by a devotee’s relatives were shared with the appeal:

Contribute IMMEDIATELY to Shaanti Bhavan Mandir’s Appeal for Trinidad Relief

Here are three ways to donate:

  • If you are familiar with Chase Quikpay, make a donation via Quikpay directly to Shaanti Bhavan Mandir’s Chase Bank account by emailing shaantibhavan@gmail.com with the subject Trinidad Seva. Please be sure to include your name and mailing address so that the Mandir can send you a receipt.

  • Donate on Sadhana’s website here, and we will ensure that 100% your donation reaches Shaanti Bhavan Mandir. Please mention Trinidad Seva in the notes.

  • Mail a check to Shaanti Bhavan Mandir at 112-06 Jamaica Ave, Jamaica, NY 11418.

If you have any questions, please contact temple volunteer Reeta at 917-468-6007.

We hope that Sadhana friends and supporters generously support Shaanti Bhavan Mandir’s relief efforts for Trinidad. Thank you!

Sadhana Brothers Reflect on Kavanaugh Nomination

Earlier this month Brett Kavanaugh, a man accused by multiple women of sexual assault, was confirmed as a judge in the U.S. Supreme court. Several sisters in Sadhana shared their opinions in a statement at the beginning of Navaratri. They talked about the pervasiveness of violence against women and invoked the power of Durga Devi to stay strong in the fight for justice. They also requested their progressive Hindu brothers to speak out and share their own perspectives on this urgent issue. Below are a few of contributions from Sadhana men around the country:

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The festival of Navaratri, currently celebrated by Hindus throughout the world, is a special opportunity for honoring the divine with the symbols and images of femininity. In a beautiful sequence of verses in the Devimahatmya, a text recited on the occasion of this beautiful festival, the Goddess (Devi) is praised repeatedly as the One residing in all beings (ya devi sarvabhteshu). She is present within us all as strength, forgiveness, peace, faith, beauty, compassion and tenderness.

Our festivals are unique opportunities for us to examine and critique our social practices in the light of religious ideals and teaching. Without this work, the religious life becomes compartmentalized and irrelevant to the task of transforming society.

Navaratri is a powerful reminder that that we cannot honor the Goddess in elaborate and costly ritual and dishonor women in daily life.  We must turn the searchlight of Navaratri on the many ways in which gender inequality and injustice are prevalent in our world.

Navaratri is a fitting occasion to highlight the problem of domestic violence that is estimated to affect 1 in 3 (35%) of women worldwide. Approximately 38% of all murders of women are committed by intimate partners (WHO). Ahimsa (non-harming), the cardinal principle of Hindu ethics, is violated in violence and injustice against women.

The victims and perpetrators of domestic violence are members of our congregations and we have a religious obligation to educate about recognizing the symptoms of domestic violence, to empower women and to foster dialogue about gender inequality. Our obligation to work for the overcoming of violence against women does not stop at the boundaries of our own communities, but must be extended to women everywhere. Hindus must be at the forefront of national conversations and the work of overcoming violence against women. The fact that the Hindu tradition does not hesitate to represent the divine as feminine makes this a sacred responsibility.

We cannot honor the Goddess (Devi) on the occasion of Navaratri, the One who dwells in all (ya devi sarvabhuteshu), and remain silent on the many ways that She is dishonored in gender violence and injustice. Let us praise her also with our actions in the world. 

- Anantananand Rambachan, Minneapolis
Anantji is an Advisory Board Member of Sadhana.

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I am a straight Hindu man. And maybe due to that and many other reasons, I was quite ignorant about a few 'truths' until quite late in my life: about how widespread sexual assault and abuse is in Hindu communities, how the patriarchal society is complicit in it, and just how much it is accepted as a part of normal life.

I was born and brought up in India. My mother runs a non-profit and several shelters for women in a very poor and rural part of Maharashtra. The first time I personally heard about sexual assault was in my mid-30s when I began to speak with some of the women my mother helped. My conversations with these women felt like slaps in the face of my ignorance. They were very humbling for me.  

To be honest, part of me simply didn't believe them in the beginning. Their stories simply defied my past experiences and my blind faith in the Hinduism I thought I knew - both as a religion and as a culture. I always believed Hinduism was the most peaceful religion, the most open-minded faith, and so on. I thought my religion was different.

However, I started to realize that the problem of sexual violence wasn't limited to other religions. It wasn’t limited to rural areas. It wasn’t limited to any specific caste or class. I started asking the women in my life—my wife, my sister, my women friends I thought I knew well—about their experiences. Their answers shamed and truly changed me.

Every single one of these women had their own story of sexual harassment—they told me about being regularly groped, receiving dirty comments, more violent stories of sexual abuse... they told me they had accepted this as the way life simply is. I heard about the little pins they would carry in their hands to stab invisible groping hands in the buses or trains. How they pretended to be deaf and not hear the comments. How they had to carefully plan every move they made in a crowded area. I realized how unaware I had been. It took me a few times of listening to all of them to realize how ugly their reality was. What was most shocking was how 'accepted' and widespread it is.

Earlier, I always felt women were safer in the USA. I am the father of a daughter who was born and raised in the United States. Even she has gone on to recount so many of the similar things I thought I left behind in India. The cat calls, the fake smile she learned to make early on to keep men happy, the reality that a men can't be trusted.

This isn't just about Kavanaugh. It isn't just about his behavior being 'unacceptable.' It isn’t just about him being confirmed as a Supreme Court justice. It is about the simple question of human decency. And what happens when a human forgets to be that: a decent human being.

Maybe that's too simplistic, but for me this has been the biggest disappointment about both the countries I love dearly. In a nation where one of the Goddesses is Kali Ma, it is a *common* practice to treat women so inhumanly! In a nation where the modern women’s liberation movement was started (and Title IX came about), it is still common to ignore women who seek justice. The FBI did not even talk to all of Kavanaugh’s accusers and instead we were given a public spectacle of 'questioning' Dr. Ford. After what Anita Hill went through, didn't we think we learned to be better human beings?

Maybe I still haven't grasped the full truth - that as a privileged straight man, I will probably never understand the damage which has been done and still continues to be done. We, men, must do more listening and actively stand behind when they need us!

- Anonymous, Chicago
Anonymous is a new member of Sadhana.

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As I watched the Kavanaugh hearings unfolded, I could not help but find strong parallels between Dr. Ford and Draupadi. In my opinion, Draupadi is among the strongest and bravest characters in the Mahabharata. Perhaps the most striking image of Draupadi is of her being disrobed and insulted by Dushasana, as Draupadi prays to Krishna for protection. However, the details of this story make the story more poignant.  

This scene takes place right after Yudhishthira’s infamous dice game, where Yudhishthira gambled away not only all his property, but also his brothers, himself and Draupadi. While all the Pandavas begrudgingly accepted, only Draupadi pleaded her case to the court: how could she be given away as property, if Yudhisthira had already given himself away? Much like in Dr. Ford’s case, such pleas, as well as the following insults and harassment, fell on the deaf ears and blind eyes of the men, Kauravas and Pandavas, in the court. In fact, in the entire court, only two men, out of hundreds, even spoke up. Even after the assault had ended, it took Gandhari, another strong female character, to ensure that there were repercussions. Throughout the ordeal, as isolated and alone as Draupadi must have felt, she maintained the strength and the courage to fight the injustice.

During the Mahabharata, Draupadi had to endure such an attack not once, but twice. When the Pandavas were in exile in the Kingdom of Virata, Draupadi was harassed by the military commander Kichaka. When Draupadi refused his advances, Kichaka dragged her to Virata’s court and insulted her in front of the entire court, including the Pandavas. Once again, there was no outcry. Kichaka was in a position of power, and no one wanted to come in his way (much like many of the men accused from the #MeToo movement). It required the courage and the cleverness of Draupadi to finally vanquish her attacker.

In Hindu mythology, there are many such figures like Draupadi. Often, the strongest role models we have from scripture are the women and the Goddesses. However, even Draupadi had to endure her pain while all men and people in power turned a blind eye. Dr. Ford was repeatedly questioned on why she didn’t come out with her story earlier. The simple answer is that her story, just like Draupadi, would not have been listened to.

In the United States, 1 in 5 women will be raped and 1 in 3 women will face sexual violence at some point in their lives. Throughout the hearing, senators said that they made space for Dr. Ford to be “heard”. To these senators, that is simply below the minimum standard of respect. To my brothers, please do not just “hear” women. At a bare minimum, we must listen to their entire story, from the pain felt during the actual attack to the lasting emotional impact. We must show empathy and understand their struggles. We must truly believe them. Then, we must provide the support that they ask for.

To my sisters, I applaud your strength and your courage. As hard as it may be, please do not let events such as Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation discourage you. As a society, we need you to share your story and be strong where men are not. However, that burden should not continue to fall solely upon you. 

I pray that men will have the strength to understand the individual struggles than women face, hold ourselves to higher standard of respect, and work together with women to ensure a safer society in the future. We all need to be more like Draupadi.

- Samir Durvasula, Washington D.C.
Samir is an active member of Sadhana.

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In 2016, I went to India with some friends and we decided to visit some members of my extended family. One of those relatives had a conversation with my father and while my bhua (his older sister) was also in the room. While I was in another room catching up with my cousins, my “uncle” told my father that the only energy that women have is lost when they give birth; in essence, once women have procreated, they lack any “useful” purpose in the world. I did not have the courage to say anything that day.

If only I could have reminded that uncle the Shakti (energy) that women have. The same Shakti that brought the cosmos into being and exists within every quark of our reality at this very moment in its balance with the Purusha (consciousness). The same Shakti that is celebrated by Hindus as the source of wealth (Lakshmi), knowledge (Saraswati), and power (Parvati) who have found a place in my uncle’s home on an altar. The same Shakti that gave my uncle a space in his mother’s womb and a space in our life. The same Shakti that made him a father and a grandfather. And the very same Shakti with which he shares no jurisdiction, because it is that same Shakti that allows room for his audacity. 

कुकर्मी कुसङ्गी कुबुद्धिः कुदासः 
कुलाचारहीनः कदाचारलीनः ।
कुदृष्टिः कुवाक्यप्रबन्धः सदाहं 
गतिस्त्वं गतिस्त्वं त्वमेका भवानि ॥५॥


I performed Bad Deeds, associated with Bad Company, cherished Bad Thoughts, and have been a Bad Servant. I did not perform my Traditional Duties [and, instead] deeply engaged in Bad Conducts. My eyes Saw with Bad Intentions [and my] tongue always Spoke Bad Words. You are my Refuge, You Alone are my Refuge, Oh Mother Bhavani.

- Sri Adi Shankaracharya’s Bhavani AshtakamStanza 5

- Tahil Sharma, Los Angeles
Tahil is Sadhana’s Los Angeles Area Coordinator

 

 

Navratri: Honoring the Devi Within

by Rajya Karipineni, active Sadhana member

Navratri begins October 9th, and comes at an opportune time for reflection and healing this year. This festival of nine nights that honors the triumph of goddess Durga over the demon Mahishasura is at its heart a celebration of the power of the divine feminine, or Shakti/Devi. We celebrate the devi in all forms, from blissful brahmachari to ferocious warrior. Garba dancers may joyously circle around the image of a goddess. Families adorn steps full of Golu dolls representing the goddess. We can also take this time to take our worship from the symbolic to the worship of Shakti within ourselves and in our communities.

We must make space for this reflection as the tumult of recent days has reminded us of persistent violence towards marginalized genders. The US Supreme Court nomination hearings were a glaring, painful example of the blame placed on survivors of sexual assault and of the constant undermining of survivors stories and dignity. The hearings uncovered the deeply entrenched power of men, particularly wealthy, white men. At the same time, the Supreme Court of India has ruled that women aged 10-50, who were previously banned due to the potential of “unclean” menstruations, now have the right to enter Sabarimala temple. Protests abounded in the face of the verdict, citing a threat to tradition.

Consistent in these stories is the message that the bodies of women are shameful and belong to men. We’re told that our bodies invite rape and assault and that we should be humiliated at the violation of our bodies. The means of creating life is considered dirty. Through all this, we’re told to be silent, subordinate, and less than.

This Navratri is a welcome moment to continue healing from the gender oppression magnified the last weeks. Navratri is a reminder that, though this is the current reality, things haven’t always been this way and gender hierarchy isn’t an objective truth. While we narrowly define tradition now, tradition also includes the exaltation of women goddesses. Each day of Navratri reveres another aspect of the female divine, embracing women for their whole selves. While we mourn the scars that have been re-opened and deepened, let us also celebrate the bravery of Christine Blasey Ford and the many survivors who have come forward - either publicly or to loved ones or even to themselves - to change the narrative. Let’s also celebrate the work and persistence of the people that fought for access to the Sabarimala temple.

Find the time to honor your inner devi as well. To those who identify as women and/or embrace their feminine selves, I offer this meditation. I honor the goddess within you. I honor the multitudes that you hold within you, the beauty of your grace and your rage. I honor the labor you offer through creation, creativity, and expression. I honor your courage when speaking truth, and your wisdom when choosing to be silent. I honor the space you make for struggle and rest, for visibility and inward reflection. The devi is expansive as are you.


Durga Bija Mantra  (Bija means seed. A Bija mantra is the shortest and most powerful form of prayer. Bija mantras are made up of are one-syllable seed sounds that, when said aloud, cause us to resonate with the energy of our own  bhakti  or devotion.)

Durga Bija Mantra

(Bija means seed. A Bija mantra is the shortest and most powerful form of prayer. Bija mantras are made up of are one-syllable seed sounds that, when said aloud, cause us to resonate with the energy of our own bhakti or devotion.)


Sadhana Sisters Speak Out on Kavanaugh Confirmation

On Saturday October 6th, the US Senate voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh, a man accused of sexual assault by several women, to the US Supreme Court. A few Sadhana sisters share their views on the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh:

TRIGGER WARNING:These testimonies contains information about child abuse, sexual assault, and/or violence which may be triggering to survivors. The National Sexual Assault Hotline can be reached by calling 800.656.HOPE (4673). You will be routed to a local sexual assault service provider in your area.

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The confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh is a devastating and heartbreaking moment for me and any woman who has ever experienced or is experiencing sexual assault. This nation is not only telling victims of abuse that we do not believe them; we are also telling their attackers that they can commit these heinous crimes and suffer no consequences. Forget consequences, they can become a justice of the Supreme Court, or even President of the United States!

With Navratri, a festival glorifying the Divine Feminine, around the corner, it is unbelievable that a man accused of violence against women has just been placed in such a position of power. In the Devi Mahatmyam, the Mother Goddess takes the form of Durga to destroy the demons plaguing humanity. The demon brothers, Shumbh and Nishumbh, lust after the Goddess. After She rejects their advances, they try to forcefully take Her due to arrogance and pride. The Goddess defeated them and saved the innocents they were terrorizing. The actions of these evil beings are eerily similar to those of Kavanaugh, who is accused of forcing himself on women who clearly did not consent to his actions. Dr. Ford said she was 100% sure it was Kavanaugh who assaulted her, and while this isn’t proof, shouldn't we have enough doubt to refrain from adding him the the Supreme Court of this land? We hope that the Goddess will bring offenders like him to justice once again, and bring salvation to their victims.

All Americans should be outraged that Brett Kavanaugh was appointed by a President who is an accused repeat sexual offender, and a man who has voted that we restrict and rollback protections and accessibility to abortion. Our government is poised to repeal the rights granted to us in Roe v. Wade. We must follow the footsteps of women activists before us who ensured our bodily autonomy and gave us control of our reproductive health. We must honor their fight by fighting to keep those freedoms. We must take the streets in protest! We must call our representatives! We must show up at the voting booths! We must take action!

—Davanie Singhroy, Queens, NY
Davanie is a board member of Sadhana.

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Dr. Ford described the laughs of her attackers to be her most vivid memory of the attack because it dehumanized her and made her feel powerless. My grandfather’s calm and gentle smile as he walked me to a bathroom in our home in India, stripped naked and described what he wanted me to do to him as though it was a normal and justified demand is my most vivid childhood memory because it made me numb with confusion.

As a 6-year-old Indian girl, the first thing I had learned in my life was to obey my elders. But thankfully I did not give in to his demands and managed to run away without being touched. I vividly remember feeling deeply distressed, powerless and confused as I ran out of the bathroom that day.

Ten years later, at 16, I felt the same distress, powerlessness and confusion when I decided to speak out against my molester, for the sake of my sisters.

Today, I feel the same kind of distress, powerlessness and confusion as I watch a sexual predator be put in charge of justice for millions despite their desperate cries and efforts.

As Dr. Ford was being shamefully questioned by a ‘prosecutor,’ I was taken back to when I was 13 and my mother asked me if I was sure that these assaults had taken place; if I could have dreamt it all up. (To be absolutely clear, there were multiple instances of sexual assault of various degrees from the age of 6 to 13.)

As survivors came forward, one after another, in Dr. Ford’s support, I was reminded of when I was 16 and I had found out that I was my grandfather’s fourth victim. That there had been a whole generation of women in my family that had been assaulted before me. I was reminded of my pledge to end this tradition with me, to not let it reach my young sisters and brothers. Today, this is the pledge of millions of survivors and of decent people of all genders across America and the world.

As I watched Republicans disgracefully discredit Dr. Ford to protect a white male chauvinism that Kavanaugh would reinforce, I was brought back to the dozens of times members of my family tried to silence me in order to protect the eldest male in the family: my molester.

“Hinduism is the only religion with Goddesses,” my father used to tell me. As a little girl, I was empowered by the possibility of a female ‘God.’

At 16, when I found myself all alone against my molester and his family, I called my father. I called him because I thought he would support me in my fight. Instead he said that my grandfather had turned into a molester because he had not prayed to the Goddesses. He suggested that I let it go and hope that my molester starts praying more. Let down by my father and terrified as I stood alone, I fought my fight by myself. My fight for girls and women across the world is itself a prayer to the Goddesses. Yes, my fight is my prayer.

Vagisha Agrawal, Calgary, Canada
Vagisha is an active member of Sadhana.

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It’s hard to even put into words the devastating consequence of confirming Brett Kavanagh as Supreme Court Justice. All the work our foremothers and sisters have fought for is placed at risk by this decision. To have a man who not only hold extreme conservative views, but who himself has a history of perpetrating gender-based violence is almost too much to bear.

In spite of the feelings of devastation and fear, I’m reminded of the fact that we’ll begin celebrating Navaratri on Tuesday. It feels significant that we’ll be praying and meditating on the divine feminine during this time.

Durga may you give us the power to fight injustice. Lakshmi may you give us an abundance of strength. Saraswati may you give us wisdom and creativity. With this we will start anew and fight for those who have no voice.

Helen Erwin, NY
Helen is an active member of Sadhana.

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All day Saturday, while the Senate was voting to appoint Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, my Sadhana sister Pratima Doobay and I were facilitating a workshop on Hinduism and social justice at One Spirit Interfaith Seminary in NYC. We told the story of Sadhana, and our efforts to inspire and mobilize Hindus to connect their faith to the social justice crises of our times.


Pratima, being a priestess in training and a trained singer, led the group in powerful puja (Hindu worship ritual in which we prayed to Prithvi Maa (Mother Earth), Lord Ganesh, and the Goddess Durga), havan (fire ritual: we each offered into the fire our affirmations and also the negative feelings and thoughts that encumber us), and kirtan (chanting and singing together).  Participants were moved to tears. Some said they were speaking up in the group for the first time. A few spoke about the sexual assault they had suffered. One man said that during kirtan he felt so grounded in the notion of mother that he felt cradled in her arms.

Pratima shared a story from our scriptures: Mahishasura, a tyrannical asura (demon), had done great penance. Lord Brahma granted him the boon that he could never be killed by man or God.  Considering himself immortal, Mahishasura began to destroy the earth and all living forms. Maa Durga, being neither man nor God, being the Goddess who embodies the cosmic energy of this universe--being a woman--was the one who killed Mahishasura and brought peace the to the earth.

When the workshop was over and I left the building, I looked at my phone and sure enough, there were the inevitable news alerts. I walked on knowing that the workshop with Pratima and the One Spirit community was the best thing I could have been doing on this particular day.

We are about to enter a favorite festival for Hindus the world over: Navratri, nine days and nights when we celebrate Maa Durga in her nine powerful forms. I know that we will sing and dance and feast, but I will focus my own prayers on the terror of sexual assault and abuse that pervades our families and communities. I invite my brothers and sisters to join me in invoking Maa Durga to fight this evil just as she saved the earth from Mahishasura. We must ignite this shakti (power) within each of us.

Swagatham (Welcome) Maa Durga
Jaago (Awaken) Maa Durga
Aao (Come) Maa Durga

Jai Mata Di (Victory to the Mother Goddess)

Sunita Viswanath, Brooklyn, NY
Sunita is a cofounder and board member of Sadhana.

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I was raised on stories of Draupadi and Shikhandi - a deliberate choice by a mom who was determined to show me that Hinduism isn’t just one set of stories which demand that women, above all, be quiet. Sita, therefore, was often a second choice on the bedtime story circuit. Among other things, she wasn’t wild about the women who supported the status quo - the Kaikeyis and the Mantharas and the Soorphanakas and the unnamed laundresses, without whom the gossip and the narrative does not continue to support the kings and their ways.

But right now, I can’t help thinking we’re all spectators at Sita’s second agnipariksha. It’s the one that people tend to conveniently forget because it happens well after the happily-ever-after that we celebrate every Diwali. It's the somewhat inconvenient part of the happy reunion of Rama with his twin sons, Luva and Kusha. The one where Sita decides she’s done.

Years after already being cast out — because apparently a god king isn’t grown-up enough to simply ignore idle gossip after the first trial — and raising twins as a single parent out in the sticks, Rama asks Sita to prove her chastity. Uh-gain. Furious, Sita refuses to oblige. She shames Rama and decides she is going home. Her Mother Earth absorbs her back into the ground and safety, leaving behind a miserable forever after King Rama.

It’s the one part of Sita’s story that my mom told me, a lot. When the world is constantly telling you to be nice and behave, it is a deeply satisfying story.

Because all the Sitas are also fresh out of fucks, and we want a lot more than a safe space away from sorry kings. We want an end to the slut-shaming. We want the justice system, in its required adherence to evidence to stop policing and punishing women more than it ever upbraids or holds men accountable. We are half the earth and we are NOT writing an end to our part in the narrative. No, we Sitas are past done being quiet, and nice. And for those of you who haven’t paid attention, we have the ballot. If you thought we were mad before, you’re in for some hell of a shock.

Anonymous, VA
Anonymous is a new member of Sadhana.