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.

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!

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.)


Populist Nationalism and the Kena Upanishad

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

The Kena Upanishad, which belongs to the Sama Veda, cautions us in a series of verses (1:4-8) about the dangers of mistaking the finite for the infinite and of worshiping the finite. In a series of five verses, the teacher differentiates the finite from the infinite. In each verse, he instructs that the infinite is not a worldly object, even one that is worshiped by people (nedaṁ yad idam upāsate — “not this that people worship”). It is a classic criticism of idolatry, understood here as the error of substituting that which is finite for the infinite. The Kena Upanishad regards such idolatry as having it roots in ignorance (avidyā).

That which speech does not illumine, but which illumines speech: know that alone to be the Brahman (the infinite), not this which people worship here.

That which cannot be thought by the mind, but by which, they say, the mind is able to think: know that alone to be the Brahman, not this which people worship here.

That which is not seen by the eye, but by which the eye is able to see: know that alone to be the Brahman, not this which people worship here.

That which cannot be heard by the ear, but by which the ear is able to hear: know that alone to be Brahman, not this which people worship here.

That which none breathes with the breath, but by which breath is in-breathed: know that alone to be the Brahman, not this which people worship here.

Translation by Swami Paramananda (source)

These remarkable verses of the Kena Upanishad challenge and invite us to reflect on our own choices with regard to the finite over infinite. The teacher is not denouncing or inviting hate and revulsion towards those things that are finite. Life in this world would not be possible without such objects. The problem here is regarding the finite as having ultimate value and making it an object of our worship (upāsate); it is giving over our hearts and minds to those things that, by nature, have limited value. When this happens, pursuits such as wealth, power, fame, and success become all-consuming. These become de facto objects of worship in the sense that we instrumentalize everything and everyone for their gain. Even traditional religious worship and practice may be directed solely for the attainment of these ends. The contemporary prosperity gospel movement exemplifies many elements of the worship of the finite that the Kena Upanishad teacher cautions against.

In thinking, however, about old and new finite substitutes for the infinite, we must not limit ourselves to those that are well-known such as wealth, power, or fame. We must think also, for example, of leaders, political or religious, who demand and to whom we may give loyalty above and beyond all other values. Such loyalty reinforces the corruption of the leader and is detrimental to the spiritual wellbeing of the follower. We must extend the Kena Upanishad’s description of the finite to include human beings who want to be treated as objects of ultimate value.

The finite object, however that I want to highlight and which is too often exempt from the Kena Upanishad’s critique is the nation. When the finite nation becomes an object of ultimate value and worship (upāsate), the dangers of ignorance (avidyā) and idolatry multiply, whether we are speaking of the United States, India or any other national entity. Invoking the nation as an object of ultimate value too often means that actions undertaken in the name of the nation are exempt from criticism and that criticism is regarded as a treacherous act of disloyalty.

Glorification of the Nation: The Example of Hindutva

The glorification of the nation is in actuality often the exaltation of a particular ethnic or religious community within constructed national boundaries or beyond it. The spiritual obstacles of egocentrism do not disappear when these are projected and transferred onto the nation and when we exalt ourselves in the name of our nations. Deśa ahaṁkara (national egocentrism) and deśa mamākara (national self-centeredness) are not less spiritually debilitating than their individual expressions. In fact, these become more dangerous when professed in the name of the nation since there is a self-deception that conceals the betrayal of religious values. Religious teachers find it much easier to condemn individual egocentrism; they are hesitant to denounce national egocentrism from fear of the accusation of disloyalty. Even those who claim to have transcended narrow identities become complicit in this matter of nation-worship.

The problems of attributing ultimate value to a finite nation take a sinister turn, with violent consequences, when definitions of the nation and national identity are championed to exclude some communities and to privilege others. In his well-known work Hindutva, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966), articulates criteria for Indian identity based on citizenship, common ancestry, common culture and regard for India as fatherland (pitrbhu) and sacred land (puṇyabhu). According to Savarkar, Jain, Sikhs and Indian Buddhists satisfy his criteria of “Hinduness,” but not Indian Muslims and Christians despite their centuries of life on the Indian subcontinent. They are, according to Savarkar, divided in their loyalties since, for them, “fatherland” and “sacred land” are not identical. He regards them as essentially alien communities in India. Savarkar’s definition of “Hinduness,” and its adoption by Hindu nationalists, and especially by those who use it to differentiate sharply between “we” and “they,” is associated with attitudes of hostility, mistrust, and increasing violence towards those minority communities that do not satisfy his criteria. Savarkar’s “Hindutva” is an example of holding the nation and a version of national identity as an ultimate value. His definition is constructed to ensure that certain communities will never satisfy his conditions for inclusion. Savarkar himself was not religious, but other versions of Hindutva ideology confer a quasi-divine status to the nation and proposes the highest aim of life to be the service and defense of the fatherland. There is no transcendent source of meaning from which one may interrogate the idea of the nation and constructions of national identity.

Thinking Beyond the Nation

 Source:  Pixabay

Source: Pixabay

Although the idea of the nation is a construct that has evolved historically, and a multiplicity of nations are part of the fabric of our existence, creation accounts in Hindu sacred sources do not speak of nations, but of the undivided universe. The great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, even while celebrating the independence of India, prayed that his country would awake to a “heaven of freedom,” “where the world has not been broken into up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.”

It is not realistic to expect the dissolution of national walls, but the Hindu tradition requires that we profess our national identities lightly, never losing sight of the more fundamental truth of a universe and living beings united by having their origin in a single divine source described in the Taittiriya Upanishad as “That from which all beings originate, by which they are sustained and to which they return.” Any version of nationalism and national identity that undermines the dignity of others or that justifies and instigates violence is contrary to the fundamental teachings of the Hindu tradition. Even as we embrace and celebrate our rich and diverse traditions, we must do so cognizant of our shared humanity and our common home in the universe.

In fact, the most ancient Hindu teachings do not call us to the service of a nation, but we are certainly called to the devote ourselves and to rejoice in the flourishing of all beings (sarva bhuta hite ratah). Our highest calling is not identity with a nation, but identity with fellow beings in joy and suffering. Our prayer is for the happiness of all (loka samasta sukhino bhavantu). The Bhagavadgita commends a concern for the universal common good (lokasamgraha) in all actions. The implication is that a nationalism that advances the interests of a nation by the exploitation of other nations or which ignores the suffering of other nations violates the Bhagavadgītā’s call for commitment to a universal common good.

The rise of populist nationalism, and especially those versions that clothe themselves in religious colors, requires a critique from the same religious traditions. The Kena Upanishad’s caution about worshipfully substituting the finite for the infinite provides solid grounds against the lifting up of a nation as an object of ultimate value.

Anubhavam: A Call to Hindus to Support Environmentalism and Combat Global Warming

by Hari Venkatachalam

HariVenkatachalam.jpg

Although Hindus differ in their practices, beliefs, and philosophies, one statement I hear from Hindus across the world is: “Hinduism isn’t a religion; it is a way of life.” It is not just something that is believed, but something that is lived. It is an “anubhavam” my family said in Tamil, implying a deeply personal experience.

Within the vast collection of anubhavam, one of my earliest is watching my grandmother decorating the threshold of her white-washed rowhouse in the early hours of the morning with rice flour patterns called kolams. I would sit on the steps, my jetlagged brain reeling from the dark sky that hinted with shades of pink at the approaching dawn. Along the street, in the flickering lights escaping from front doors, I saw other thresholds being decorated with kolams. “To welcome Lakshmi into our homes,” my grandmother whispered, soft enough to not disturb the slumbering household, but loud enough to be heard over the cawing of birds and braying of calves awakening around the sleepy town of Tirupur.

I glanced suspiciously down the bumpy road at the dozens of households that must have been on the goddess Lakshmi’s “Stop-In” list. “She can’t stop at everyone’s home?” I asked. My grandmother lifted her sari and stepped gingerly to the side to avoid the ants that had already begun to crawl around her toes to carry away the rice flour grains. She gestured with her flour-dusted wrist. “Lakshmi comes with the jeevan, the life-force, or all these creatures.” An image of the goddess surrounded by a procession of creatures crystallized in my mind…a prototype of Disney’s Snow White. It was one of my first glimpses at Hinduism’s interdependent relationship with nature.

This childhood anubhavam has since been eclipsed by other sights, smells, and sounds. The sight of Ganesh Chathurthi murtis caked with toxic chemicals immersed into already poisoned rivers. The smells of noxious fumes released by factories that have the audacity to include the holy name of “Shree” in their company name. The sounds of scattered plastic bags and trash whirling in the wind in alleys next to sacred shrines.

It is true that Hinduism is an anubhavam. It is a faith composed of sacred actions, spiritual journeys, and personal investigation. That path, though, is supported by a harmonious relationship with nature. Without that relationship, our religion is incomplete and our prayers unfulfilled. If the rice flour my grandmother scattered had welcomed the goddess Lakshmi by quieting the hunger of the small insects and ants, then our environmentally detrimental actions, as a species, have resulted in a directly opposite effect on our planet and the divinity that underlies nature. Through our carbon emissions, and the resulting anthropogenic global warming, we have left our beloved planet, in the form of the goddess Bhumi, feverish, sickly, and broken.

The Earth Science Communications Team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has returned with their lab results and diagnosis: At 408 parts per million, CO2 levels in our atmosphere are the highest they have been in 650,000 years. At least 280 billion tons of ice were lost in Greenland and 119 billion tons were lost in Antarctica per year over the past 23 years. Global temperatures are 1.8 degrees F higher than they were in 1880. Fever, indeed, for Bhumi-Mata. Anthropogenic global warming is fueled by pollution, heavy carbon emissions, and a disregard for nature.

The call for Hindus to experience faith through combating global warming may be one that arose in the mid-twentieth century, but it is an echo of the duties of our faith that have been passed down over millennia. It is in the revered trees we circumambulate (pradakshinam), in the sacred rivers in which we bathe (snaanam), and in the very air we breathe (pranaayam).

It is a way of life.

The time has come for us to combat global warming with the same sense of dharma that led Arjuna to the battlefield, with the same moral responsibility that led Lord Rama to the woods, and with the same conviction that convinced Lord Shiva to consume poison to save the world.

We must support clean and renewable energy initiatives. We must lower the carbon impact of both individuals and industries. We must advocate for the poor who will be disproportionately affected by global warming and ensure they remain safe from rising ocean levels and heat waves. We are Hindus, and in the face of global warming, this is our way of life.

This article first appeared at Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.

A prayer on Guru Purnima

By Sadhana cofounder Sunita Viswanath

It is daybreak on Guru Purnima. I am humbled by the beauty of this hour, a beauty that persists in spite of the severe drought that this place, Taos, NM, is experiencing.

Guru Purnima is a special day for Hindus, and also Buddhists and Jains. Purnima means full moon day, and Guru Purnima is the full moon day dedicated to our teachers. It’s a day to reflect on what we have learned, and how we will apply our knowledge in our lives.

On this Guru Purnima, I honor these magnificent mountains.

IMG_5542.jpg
Samudra vasane devi, parvatha sthana mandite — Oh Mother Goddess, the oceans are your robes and the mountains your jewels.

And I honor the teachers in my life:

  • My respected parents Saraswathi and Viswanath, who gave me life and taught me how to live it -- fully, with all my heart.
  • My Amma – Kameswari, my aunt who raised me – who taught me the most important lessons, that I am no less powerful because I am a woman, and that I can and must prevail in spite of great adversities.
  • My husband Stephan, who teaches me daily what a loving, selfless and egalitarian partnership looks like.
  • My children Gautama, Akash and Satya, who teach me how to stay alert and open-minded, always questioning, never following blindly.
  • My teacher and friend Dr. Ruth Vanita, who reads Hindu texts with me, gently guiding me towards my own spiritual core; and who also patiently debates with me so that I am on firmer ground in my positions and beliefs.
  • Dr. Anantanand Rambachan, who through his life and through his scholarship, reveals to me the loving and fearless heart of Hinduism.

Ramakrishna Parahamsa, 19th century Hindu mystic and Guru of Swami Vivekananda, once said, “When one’s mind becomes pure, then that mind itself becomes the guru.”

Just as the Divine is within us all, the Guru is within us. Perhaps our most profound teacher is our own discerning mind.

My Guru Purnima prayer is for rain in Taos, NM, and an end to religious violence the world over.

My Guru Purnima pledge is to apply all I have learned from my Gurus, and from my own discerning mind, and devote myself anew to my work to build a Hindu movement that stands against Hindutva (Hindu supremacy), and stands for love, nonviolence and the oneness of us all.

The Mysterious Reappearance of Ranger Tim

By Rohan Narine

31954260_1850282608325726_4288453076152483840_o.jpg

As a British-Guyanese-American of Indian and South Asian interfaith ancestry from Queens, I sometimes unknowingly become the center of attention at posh parties. Now aware, I relish time and don comfortable cloth to tell a story or two at these parties. On Saturday, April 7th, 2018, Sadhana, the most trolled Progressive Hindu organization in the world, held its very first beach cleanup of the year. Surprisingly, to the detriment of haters, they actually did real and tangible work. They volunteered from the heart which led to magic and mystery. This story, told at a wedding reception one posh evening at some fancy country club castle estate chateau in New Jersey, is a recollection of that magic and mystery.

So, if you may not have known, my wife is not your average human. She’s quite the star. Combining beauty sprinkled with a dash of lawyer, Aminta has the gift of turning convoluted theory into earthly pragmatism. Being able to distill deep diving and often-divisive Vedic philosophies into simple words and actions is a gift that must be witnessed to be believed. On this day, Project Prithvi’s first beach cleanup of the year, Aminta carefully pieced together a devotional ceremony to Mother Earth, and led through her kindness a beach cleanup dedicated to a living planet that loves all faiths. From one volunteer came two, then four, then eight, then sixteen, and then it sort of didn’t double to thirty two okay, but about twenty five people in all bore the freezing wind chill, without a budget for marketing or promotional material. The magic had begun.

A little before 10:00am, one of the first to arrive on the scene at the world-famous gazebo in Jamaica Bay’s parking lot was Timothy Farrell, a National Parks Service Ranger so quiet that he disappears in to the background of the cleanups better than Waldo in a Where’s Waldo puzzle. With him was his sidekick model-faced socialite Rick Jenkins. Together they represent the best that the National Parks Service has to offer. Their personalities also jive at exactly the right times, gifting them the nuance of keen listening. Luck, for some reason or another, always seems to be on their side.

On this inaugural Saturday morning, the cleanup started on time, gave way to a naturally growing group of volunteers, and garnered a strong turnout from Parks Service advocacy. But, it was cold, like when your butt hits a wintry toilet seat in a public bathroom. There was just no warmth that day. One mother and daughter duo, Shaneeza and Feona, went back in to their vehicle to warm their hands, and that was at 11:00am, just one hour in. Only about 20 garbage bags had been filled, and over a handful of Murthi’s collected. Sensing an energy, I suggested to Aminta that perhaps the cleanup should end a bit early. Aminta hoisted the idea up to a vote by the volunteers, and even Rangers Tim and Rick agreed. So, instead of ending at 1:00pm, at 11:15am Aminta decided to throw in the sari and call Sadhana’s first inaugural beach cleanup over. She then expertly delegated staff who in turn led volunteers to regroup at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, about one mile away, for lunch. It was 37 degrees.

Once everyone who was hungry corralled, car-pooled, and parked in the Refuge’s lot, they were given a glimpse into another world. Inside was a receptionist who at times rotated front desk duty with a Park Ranger, restrooms with open doors for visitors who needed a rinse from the rough outdoors, and glass enclosed fossils of crustaceans often found alongside broken Murthi’s at the Bay. There were even sightings of white people. Once assembled in the de facto art gallery, tables and chairs were causally pulled out to accommodate. Placed on the table were two aluminum trays of Guyanese-style chickpeas and one partially filled plastic container of authentic wiri wiri pepper sauce from, you guessed it, Guyana. As the line formed, Ranger’s Tim and Rick heard that Guyanese-style chickpeas were on the menu and unhesitatingly flew in like Iron Man and War Machine trying to rescue an infinity stone.

All thanks go to Sadhana’s self-appointed Sous Chef Babita Rampersaud who graciously served her chickpea creation to warm volunteers in small Styrofoam bowls (next cleanup they were biodegradable). Lunch never tasted better. Volunteers are always given the opportunity to network at the cleanups, and lunch is mostly when it happens. This post-cleanup luncheon I had pleasure of meeting Ms. Mala Tiwari’s two sons Yogesh and Mohanesh (also known as Andrew and Ryan here in America). I didn’t get the chance to speak to Yogesh that much, but Mohanesh, a smart handsome future scientist about half my age, had a phone that was twice as powerful as mine. I made it my purpose to inform him that my birthday is in November, twice.

As lunch gradually concluded, and thinking no one paid any mind to that small plastic container of wiri wiri, Ranger Tim, who waited for everyone else to finish eating, picked up a bowl of chickpeas, mysteriously focused his gaze on the pepper sauce and liberally poured two spoonful’s all over his lunch. I think I saw the Styrofoam in his bowl begin to melt. Everyone’s energy shifted to him in slow motion, their eyes opened wide, their mouths opening wider, all simultaneously gasping in horror over what had happened: a bowl full of chickpeas just went to waste.

One volunteer said, “You can’t eat that, you know that, right?” Another said, “You’ll have to throw that away. That’s too much pepper. Just grab another bowl.” I told him, “It’s cool bro, you didn’t know. It’s not your fault.” Tim looked at me and without blinking said, “No, I know. It’s alright. I like the spice. I love hot foods.” Everyone in the gallery looked at Tim, confused. Was he trying to save face knowing he ruined his meal? But to the amazement of us all, he did the unthinkable. He took a bunch of chickpeas oozing with pepper and ate it without flinching. He just kept on chewing, swallowing, and chewing some more. Tim kept that cycle of what everyone thought was taste bud birth and death going until he finished it…all of it.

Tim is a quiet guy at Sadhana’s beach cleanups. He mostly smiles, greets everyone with kindness, and packs up at the end right on time, every time. He subtly disappears into the background, functioning like a computer’s random access memory, always performing anew each time it’s rebooted. However this time around, seeing him take down the wiri wiri peppered chickpeas without searching for a sip of water, I thought two things: he’s either faking it or he’s the real deal. But my wife, my sister-in-law Hemma, and everyone else who embraced their chairs upon seeing the sight could only confirm the impossible: Ranger Tim reappeared to us all with a tongue shielded from the wiri wiri. Maybe while cleaning the Bay Mother Durga or Mother Kali granted him a boon? Who’s to know? To me, it’s all still quite mysterious.

The Eco-Dharmic Balancing Act

The Eco-Dharmic Balancing Act

Soon-to-be doctor Chris Fici ideated the Sadhana Salon as a pathway to delve deep beyond just the debate of what being a ‘progressive’ Hindu is, but to actually insert new narratives of thought into already progressively held beliefs. The discussion for the evening – Progressive Hindu Earth Seva - sought to define exactly how Hindus, specifically the progressive ones, see their daily worship in a global ecological context. How do Hindus connect themselves to Mother Earth? What is the dharma of a Hindu ecologist? Why are Hindus discouraged from using the term “environmental justice”?  

Hinduism and Ecology Conference at Govardhan Eco-Village, India

By Sadhana Board Member Christopher Fici

  May this Earth, replete with seas, rivers and water sources, excellent foodgrains from agriculture, prolific vegetation and abundant living creatures, bestow upon us munificent nutrition!

May this Earth, replete with seas, rivers and water sources, excellent foodgrains from agriculture, prolific vegetation and abundant living creatures, bestow upon us munificent nutrition!

May the Earth who is in the nature of a mother, hold us, her children, close to her life-endowing self, protect us, and may Parjanya (the rain-bearing clouds) in the nature of a father, tend our upbringing. 

May the Earth who is in the nature of a mother, hold us, her children, close to her life-endowing self, protect us, and may Parjanya (the rain-bearing clouds) in the nature of a father, tend our upbringing. 

May this Earth so charged with positive force, neutralise that element which impels ill-will, aggressive intention, subjugation of human beings and their elimination. 

May the Earth give us, her progeny, the capacity to speak pleasantly with each other, may our languages enable harmonious interaction between ourselves.

In daily life, on Earth, whether we are sitting, standing, or in motion, may our activity be such as would never cause injury or grief! 

I evoke the Earth which gives shelter to all the searchers of truth, to those who are tolerant and have understanding, to all things strength-giving, nutritious; the source of creative spirit, we depend on you, O Earth!

O Earth, in the villages, forest, assemblies, committees and other places on Earth, may what we express always be in accord with you.

 

Prthvi-Sukta-Hymn to the Earth-from the Atharva Veda

Nature is also our neighbor, she is alive with rights like everyone else, but too many people don’t see nature that way. The Vedic scriptures tell that the most simple and powerful method of cleansing the ecology of the heart and awakening this dormant love within us is to chant God’s names. In my tradition we chant the names of Krishna.

God has empowered all of us in different ways and if we agree on what the real problem is, then we can all contribute our part of the solution. The well being of Mother Earth is everyone’s problem. It is crucial for leaders in all fields to serve cooperatively.

--Radhanath Swami

 

What does it mean to be a true, honest, and loving sevaka of Bhumi-Devi, of our Mother Earth. A wise friend of mine once said, in her dialogue with Native American elders, that we make a mistake when we say “the” Earth, as if we are making her an object. Instead we must always say, in the language and service of our lips and our hearts, simply that she is Earth, that she is a personal, living, breathing, loving being, just like you and I. She is our Mother, who gives us all elements of flourishing life.

We do not risk oversimplification of the matter nor do we risk anthropomorphizing our planet by claiming she is personal and living. The very cutting-edges of climate science tell us, with increasing urgency, that Earth is a living system who reacts and responds to care, and to abuse, exactly as we do. The cutting-edges of eco-theology tell us that Earth is not just a personal living being, but as we see in the great sastras, the sacred texts of Hinduism, that she is also a beloved, especial devotee of God.

Sacred sastric texts such as the Bhagavat Purana direct us to theological narratives which personify Earth as Bhumi-Devi. The Tenth Canto of the Bhagavat Purana opens with Bhumi-Devi, “overburdened by hundreds of thousands of military phalanxes of various conceited demons dressed like kings.” She then assumes “the form of a cow” to beseech, with great emotion, Brahma and his fellow demigods to implore Vishnu to incarnate upon her very soil to protect her and her fellow devotees. Krishna's subsequent descent and full revelation of his Earthly lila in the cherished Tenth Canto of the Bhagavat Purana thus emerges from the devotion of Bhumi-Devi. Her bhakti compels Krishna to incarnate, in part, as an act of resistance and justice-making against the forces of systemic evil overrunning the flourishing of the planetary creation and community.

This past December, a wonderful community of religious scholar/practitioners gathered at the Govardhan Eco-Village project in Maharastra, India, for a conference on Hinduism and Ecology convened by The Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, the Bhaktivedanta Vidyapitha Research Center, and The Bhumi Project. This conference was a long-awaited follow-up to The Yale Forum’s initial series of conferences in the late 1990’s, done in conjunction with the Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions, on the eco-theologies of the world’s diverse religious traditions and communities. This initial series of conference led to a series of publications, and the volume on Hinduism and Ecology continues to remain the gold standard for Hindu eco-theology.

In his opening plenary talk, Radhanath Swami, the founder of the Govardhan Eco-Village project, welcomed us into the experience of the Eco-Village as a community which attempts to combine cutting-edge climate science with the timeless wisdom of the Vedic spiritual sciences. The Eco-Village is a community which attempts to embody the consciousness of Krishna’s grace, of God’s grace, in every element of Earthly creation. Swami told us that if “we understand God as the source of all nature, then naturally we develop the mood and practice of Earth seva (service). This seva is the most holy principle of life, for life.” The teaching of para-dukha-dukhi, to understand and experience the suffering, and also the bliss, of all living beings, as our very own suffering and bliss, is essential for this practice of Earth seva, We must understand Earth, and all of her planetary children, as our “cherished neighbor. This leads to a deep, profound, and lasting change in the ecological quality of our lives.”

In the Eco-Village, an experiment of immersion in the radical substance of bhakti-yoga, the yoga of selfless and loving devotion, is ongoing, rooted in devotion to Earth and Krishna in concert, to create a sanctuary for re-developing and re-creating relationships. Swami’s words deepened my own conviction, as a scholar studying the Eco-Village (which is to be the subject of my upcoming Ph.D dissertation at Union Theological Seminary) and as a disciple of Swami inspired to serve and help develop this community to its utmost.

The Govardhan Eco-Village is truly, as the Christian eco-theologian Larry Rasmussen describes, an anticipatory community. Rasmussen, in his excellent book Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key, defines anticipatory community:

Anticipatory communities are home places where it is possible to reimagine worlds and reorder possibilities, places where new or renewed practices give focus to an ecological and postindustrial way of life. Such communities have the qualities of a haven, a set-apart and safe place yet a place open to creative risk. Here basic moral formation happens by conscious choice and not by default (simply conforming to the ethos and unwritten ethic of the surrounding culture). Here eco-social virtues are consciously cultivated and           embodied in community practices. Here the fault lines of modernity are exposed.

The Govardhan Eco-Village is indeed (and please check out the visual essay which follows this written essay) a community which is actively, with full creativity, and immense theological depth, helping to anticipate, in the fabric of Earth-honoring dharma, justice, and compassion, the way forward into the Age of Climate Crisis. As Swami concluded, the practice of bhakti helps us to “return to dependence on our interdependence with all living beings, and with God, Bhakti helps us to become an instrument of Divine love on Earth and for Earth, which is the essential harmonic principle of yoga.” Bhakti is the renewable, sustainable energetic principle which heals the corruption of our own internal consciousness, and allows us to harmonize our inner and outer ecology.

If bhakti can be understood to one of the most exquisite ecological arts, then the most exquisite practitioner of these arts, Sri Krishna, can be understood as “the greatest environmentalist.” Shrivatsa Goswami, one of the head priests of the Radha-ramana Temple in Vrindavana, and one of the leading environmental activists of the Hindu community explains that “Krishna’s love is not to subjugate or exploit nature, but to celebrate it. With what technique do we protect our environment? This technology is relationship through love, through devotion, through giving and serving.”,  Earth seva, our eco-dharma, service in the mood of love, care, and devotion, can lead us to find and restore what has been lost to us, such as a freely flowing, pure, crisp, and clean Yamuna River.

Vaishnava scholar/practitioner David Haberman, one of the key architects of the conference, has spent years studying and working for the restoration of the Yamuna. His powerful and evocative book River of Love in an Age of Pollution: The Yamuna River of Northern India explores the deep tensions between devotion of Yamuna as a goddess and as a river. All too often, even the most sophisticated of bhakti theologies of river goddess worship are not enough to prevent and heal the devastation of Yamuna and other sacred rivers of India. How can devotees of Yamuna fully recover their understanding that one must worship Yamuna as both living goddess and living water? To do so, Haberman writes

The environmental activist as karma yogi must in effect learn to see everything in the world concurrently with two very different eyes: one trained on the finite and one trained on the infinite...the Yamuna is in trouble; she is polluted and unhealthy and is pleading for our help. The response she deserves is a tender one. Here seva means loving acts of kindness that aim to alleviate her pain. In this perspective, time is of the essence; we need to act now.

Goswami told us that “natural ecology is only a fraction, only a portion, of what we need to understand about the reality of ecology. We must restore the foundations of our social ecology, beginning with the ecology of our own individual being.” Goswami, like so many in the field of Hinduism and Ecology, takes cues from Gandhi, “especially the understanding that there is enough of Mother Earth’s care for our need, but never enough for our greed.”

The ecology of our own field of consciousness, our own ground of being, is ever a place where we find the contradictions of our awareness wrapped up together, like different vines competing and clashing in their ascent up the trunk of the tree of our spirit. In Vaishnava theology, as Goswami highlighted, there is the message of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the great Vaishnava acarya (teacher), who says that our sense of unity and our sense of difference with one another, and with God, is harmonized in the tattva (truth) of acintya-bhedabheda (simultaneous inconceivable oneness and difference). Rather that letting these two truths of oneness and difference devolve into polemics, or destructive dualities, Chaitanya teaches us that, beyond even the bounds of our ample but limited reason, we are both always one and always different with each other, with Earth, and with God. Without this dance of unity and difference, real love and devotion will never manifest. This understanding of the fabric of reality, at the core of our hearts, extends out, says Goswami, to the different elements of human meaning-making. He told us that “technology and politics has to dance with religion the way our genders dance together, the way the Lover and the Beloved dance together.”

To dance with Krishna, to play with Krishna, is to understand that Krishna is always revealing the heart of seva with love, and this heart must be the core of our environmental awareness and activism. We must understand that bhakti is truly bursting from every atom and element of creation, as proclaimed by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, the heads of the Yale Forum for Religion and Ecology, the co-creators of the Journey of the Universe project, and two of the leading and founding eco-theologians in the world. Their work has been in service of providing “a dance of spirituality to the equation.” Echoing Goswami’s call that our traditions and communities of knowledge must dance together, Tucker and Grim see the journey of creation through the “exquisite emergence of the processes and presence of life, as life expresses its constructive, destructive, re-constructive, and creative elements. Indeed there does seem to an element of relationship, an element of devotion, of bhakti, which is inherent to the ecosystems of Earth.”

Indeed, “as ninjas in the institution” of the academy, Tucker and Grim, alongside the Hindu scholar/practitioners present, are daring to insist there is a meaning and purpose behind the expressions of Earthly creation. In the cell itself is “the sense of self, and a sense of consciousness, and the process of consciousness is the search for the self.” Understanding that every living being, from macro to micro, is a conscious, searching, creative self, and that the universe is, as explained by Tucker and Grim’s dear mentor Thomas Berry, a communion of subjects rather than a collection of objects, leads us to the consider the potential of radical theological and cosmological shifts in how we understand the very fabric of reality.

The universal communion of subjects is a fundamental idea at the core of Hinduism and Hindu eco-theology. If we can understand that every being and every element of creation is alive with sacred energy and presence, then we can, as Krishna teaches Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita, to see with sama-darsinah, with loving vision of equality and justice, with a vision which turns our bodies, minds, and souls in directions of Earth-honoring care and faith

Before we conclude and you can take a look at some of the wonderful images from the conference and the Eco-Village, I also want to share a few thoughts from my own presentation on “Bhakti for Bhumi-Devi: The Yoga of Devotion for the Age of Climate Crisis”, as well as a few thoughts from our dear friend/colleague Kenneth Valpey on his presentation of “Tending for Krishna’s Cows.” In my presentation I made a wide-reaching case that the values and practices of bhakti-yoga are vital resources as we turn intensely into the Age of Climate Crisis. Enhancing our consciousness of devotion, even and especially as the ravages and tragedies of climate change intensify in kind, in one of our deepest pools of hope to respond to Climate Crisis with justice, care, and compassion for the most vulnerable planetary beings. However, as we have seen with the immense pollution which inhabits even the most sacred rivers of India, the Ganga and the Yamuna, we also need to confront and explore how even our common, traditional understandings of bhakti not only might not be enough for the wicked times we are in, but may also consciously and unconsciously contribute to the pollution we contribute to the flesh of Earth. I ask:                       

If even our conceptions and practices of bhakti as many of them now stand cannot properly address, and perhaps even contribute to the wickedness of our climate crisis, what Earth-honoring rasas do we need to cultivate, recover, and create anew? What deepens the affective and emotional experience of our bhakti so that it enflames our devotion for Earth? How do we call upon bhakti-devi, perhaps in ways we have never done before in any particular context, to assist us in the massive climate-justice making work at hand ,to resist and reverse the tides of the structural evil which creates our Climate Crisis?

Valpey, who is one of the leading Vaishnava scholars in the world and the author of the excellent book on devotional deity arati (worship) Attending Krsna’s Image: Chaitanya Vaishnava Murti-Seva as Devotional Truth, led us into an intriguing presentation on the connection between Bovinity and Divinity, and the worship/care of cows and bulls as an indispensable aspect of practicing dharma. Calling upon venerable sastras (sacred texts) such as the Bhagavat Purana, in which Cow as Earth and Dharma as Bull lay profound moral concerns upon the formation of planetary community, Valpey argues for an “ethics of divine preference of Cow Care as comprehensive ecological care.” Valpey’s numerous fruitful encounters with goshala (cow care shelter) communities in India convinces him that the care of cow and bull leads us to re-discover our own capacity as “agricultural co-creators in the matrix of dharma and bhakti rooted in divinity.”

When I questioned him about the complex knots which tie cow protection practices in India (and advocating for such practices worldwide) to the politics of Hindu nationalism and the mob violence and murder which attends such politics in India, Valpey admitted that these politics are certainly unavoidable and must be engaged with as much care and sanity as one can muster, but he insists we must not lose sight of the deep ecological, economic, and spiritual value of cow care and protection. This is a particular challenge for Sadhana and all progressively minded Hindus, and a challenge we should not shy away from. We should be able to write about, participate in, and advocate the powerful movements of cow care and protection without either overlooking the politics, without addressing the genuine concerns of our Muslim, Dalit, and non-vegetarian brothers/sisters who feel oppressed by the co-opting of Bovinity and Divinity for the purposes of Hindutva. Neither should we get lost in the politics, and find ourselves unable to pro-actively participate and advocate for our Mother Cow and Brother Bull, and how their intrinsic well-being is profoundly tied to the intrinsic well-being of Mother Earth.

I want to share some images from the Hinduism and Ecology conference and the Govardhan Eco-Village, so you can better experience this remarkable community and the incredible Earth seva they are creating.

  A living model of Keshi Ghat and the Yamuna River, originally in Vrindavan, India. Keshi Ghat is where devotees of Yamuna-ji, the sacred river goddess, go to bathe and worship in her spirit-giving waters.

A living model of Keshi Ghat and the Yamuna River, originally in Vrindavan, India. Keshi Ghat is where devotees of Yamuna-ji, the sacred river goddess, go to bathe and worship in her spirit-giving waters.

  The members of the community have re-created the original village atmosphere of Vrindavan, the eternal spiritual home of Krishna and his most beloved devotees. While walking mindfully and devotionally through Vrindavana within the Eco-Village, one is reminded at every step of Krishna and his exceedingly wonderful pastimes.

The members of the community have re-created the original village atmosphere of Vrindavan, the eternal spiritual home of Krishna and his most beloved devotees. While walking mindfully and devotionally through Vrindavana within the Eco-Village, one is reminded at every step of Krishna and his exceedingly wonderful pastimes.

  Nimai-Lila Dasa, one of the directors of the Govardhan Eco-Village project, and a practicing brahmacari (monk) spends some time in the goshala with the resident cows. Radhanath Swami asks each resident monk to spend at least two hours a week in cow care.

Nimai-Lila Dasa, one of the directors of the Govardhan Eco-Village project, and a practicing brahmacari (monk) spends some time in the goshala with the resident cows. Radhanath Swami asks each resident monk to spend at least two hours a week in cow care.

  This is the community’s ingenious composting/waste treatment garden/system. All the community’s wastewater is pumped into the garden atop the structure, where an array of particularly plants filter out and compost the waste through their minerals and roots. The filtered water is then reused for the community’s organic agriculture.

This is the community’s ingenious composting/waste treatment garden/system. All the community’s wastewater is pumped into the garden atop the structure, where an array of particularly plants filter out and compost the waste through their minerals and roots. The filtered water is then reused for the community’s organic agriculture.

  The composting garden atop the waste-treatment facility.

The composting garden atop the waste-treatment facility.

  Nimai-Lila lovingly takes in the aroma of a fresh flower grown from the compost of the community.

Nimai-Lila lovingly takes in the aroma of a fresh flower grown from the compost of the community.

  The community’s rural development/empowerment program helps local villagers recover their economic and ecological base for right and just living. The different components of the program include such elements as seed conservation, water resource development, women’s empowerment, and a number of diverse skill development and education programs.

The community’s rural development/empowerment program helps local villagers recover their economic and ecological base for right and just living. The different components of the program include such elements as seed conservation, water resource development, women’s empowerment, and a number of diverse skill development and education programs.

  Each evening a local pujari (priests) offers arati (worship) to the Yamuna River, while devotees assemble and sing the Yamunastakam, a musical prayer of devotion for the Yamuna River written by the Vaishnava acarya Srila Rupa Goswami.

Each evening a local pujari (priests) offers arati (worship) to the Yamuna River, while devotees assemble and sing the Yamunastakam, a musical prayer of devotion for the Yamuna River written by the Vaishnava acarya Srila Rupa Goswami.

  Your author subjects the cows to hipster doofus selfies...

Your author subjects the cows to hipster doofus selfies...

  ...and then gets the bovine divine side-eye.

...and then gets the bovine divine side-eye.

  The resident deities of the Eco-Village, Sri-Sri Radha-Vrindavan-Bihari, along with a deity of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, the avatar of Krishna at the root of the community’s Caitanya Vaishnava theology, practice, and culture.

The resident deities of the Eco-Village, Sri-Sri Radha-Vrindavan-Bihari, along with a deity of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, the avatar of Krishna at the root of the community’s Caitanya Vaishnava theology, practice, and culture.

  His Holiness Radhanath Swami launches the Hinduism and Ecology conference with deep prayer and profound words of wisdom and encouragement.

His Holiness Radhanath Swami launches the Hinduism and Ecology conference with deep prayer and profound words of wisdom and encouragement.

  The conference attendees had a chance to visit the goshala and engage in some cow care.

The conference attendees had a chance to visit the goshala and engage in some cow care.

  Radhanath Swami and Vaishnava scholar/practitioner David Haberman in a few loving moments with Prema-ji, one of the community’s newest calves.

Radhanath Swami and Vaishnava scholar/practitioner David Haberman in a few loving moments with Prema-ji, one of the community’s newest calves.

  Your humble author gives his presentation of “Bhakti for Bhumi-Devi: The Yoga of Devotion for the Age of Climate Crisis”       

Your humble author gives his presentation of “Bhakti for Bhumi-Devi: The Yoga of Devotion for the Age of Climate Crisis”      

 

 

Krishna as Replicant

Krishna as Replicant

The eyeless machine continues, "Too often, we search and think we are pure. Unfortunately, this is the mind acting in accordance with its nature. One cannot blame the mind for thinking that it can exist in perfection. Know that perfection is the veil of barbarism, the eternal barrier to universal love. To be a perfect human is to merge the flawed self with every other flawed self, and in realizing that connection is to begin to understand how powerful the Self, the result of all selves in union, really is."

A Diwali Message from Sadhana

A Diwali Message from Sadhana

"On this occasion of Diwali, we gather in our homes, temples, and community centers to celebrate the victory of light over darkness."

"Diwali is not simply a festival for us to meet with our families, but also a time for us to reflect on the meaning of dharma. It is variously translated as “duty”, “morality”, “honor”, and “calling”."

"With so much suffering in the world, it behooves the Hindu community to help others escape suffering, to empower them to take hold of their destinies, and fulfill their own dharmas."

Inviting Hindus to Perform Seva in Houston, Texas

Inviting Hindus to Perform Seva in Houston, Texas

Its hard to imagine, in this day and age, and in a wealthy nation like America, that we are still under the mercy of Prithvi Ma (Mother Nature) and how quickly a few hours of rain can devastate an entire city. Hurricane Harvey is an urgent call to all of us, and not the first call of this kind, to do our part to protect our lands and seas, and to stem the tide of climate change. I live in a part of Houston which is completely flooded, but was lucky enough to be able to move to another neighborhood temporarily. I am including photos of the neighborhood I call home, Montrose, sent to me by my neighbors.

Ganesh Chaturthi Reflection

Ganesh Chaturthi Reflection

Understandably, one might say that we don’t invite non-Hindus and non-Indians to our festivals and celebrations because they might feel uncomfortable or out of place. However, there is a growing tradition of secular alternatives to and secular spaces within religious events, as seen in Diwali and Holi, both of which are steeped in traditional Hindu practices that might ordinarily turn off outsiders due to a lack of familiarity. Yet it is this lack of familiarity that prevents us from engaging in proper acts of solidarity. For more obscure, yet arguably more important events like my thread ceremony, there is little to no knowledge on how it impacts our culture or our practices

I'm an Ambiguous Hindu

I'm an Ambiguous Hindu

The work to create a movement of progressive Hinduism is equal parts always both deeply enlivening and deeply agonizing. It’s important, first and foremost, to clearly state that Hinduism itself is not necessarily more unique or intense than other traditions like Christianity or Islam in terms of the fluidity and diversity underlying the structures of the tradition and community itself, nor is Hinduism necessarily more unique or intense in terms of the presence of, and the need to resist, destructive, stunted fundamentalist elements which warp and box in the tradition’s natural flow.

Not In My Name: I refuse to cede Hinduism to those who want to make India a Hindu rashtra

I will never forget that cold and rainy day in New York in March 2011. I was part of an inter-faith vigil to support the creation of a Muslim cultural centre at lower Manhattan, close to Ground Zero of the September 11, 2001, attack. Just as I began to lament the absence of Hindus at the vigil (as is often the case), I heard a beautiful Hindu prayer over a megaphone. But to my horror, I realised the prayer was being sung by a saffron-clad man on the other side of the police line, who was protesting because he believed that to build a Muslim centre and mosque close to Ground Zero was to dishonour the hundreds that died at the hands of Muslim terrorists on 9/11.

Until then, my Hinduism had been private and my activism public. But on that day, I vowed to never again allow someone to use Hinduism to preach hatred in my presence without countering them saying: “Not in my name.

But even as I write this piece, I come across news of yet another lynchingin India – this time of a 15-year-old Muslim boy died after he and his brothers were allegedly attacked by a group of 10-12 Hindu men on a train.

This is not the Hinduism I recognise, or accept.

Monstrous growth

In 2011, a few of us created the group Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus, headquartered in New York, because we could no longer bear that there was no politically progressive Hindu voice in the face of a growing and rampantly Islamophobic and casteist Hindu nationalist movement. Sadhana’s founders and members are Hindus who were raised to believe that the heart of our religion is pluralistic. We were taught to embrace the teachings of oneness of all (ekatva), compassion and nonviolence to all beings and all the universe (ahimsa). We have worked hard over the years – writing, speaking, marching, organising events and holding Hinduism classes for children that are grounded in the teachings of social justice at the heart of Hindu texts – and have been recognised for our efforts.

In the years since we began, our numbers have grown, but not nearly enough.

What has, meanwhile, grown in monstrous proportions in this period is the movement of Hindu nationalists.

Amid the growing incidents of lynching, in recent weeks we have come across several articles by writers and intellectuals in India asking the same question in various ways: Where are the progressive Hindus?

In the Wire, Harsh Mander asked: “Where are India’s Dissenting Hindus?”

In the Hindustan TimesRamchandra Guha wrote:

“Hindu liberalism, once so vigorous and on the ascendant, is increasingly besieged, as the leadership of the community passes into the hands of bigots and reactionaries. Having (to quote Gandhi) once lived in a house whose windows were kept open to let the breeze from outside come in freely, having once (to invoke Tagore) gloried in the illumination of a lamp lit anywhere in the world, Hindu leaders are now turning inwards, looking backwards.

And large sections of the community are following their lead. Thus ever larger numbers of Hindus ‘seem to have locked their sensibilities with a huge padlock and have thrown the key away’. Besides, ‘it has become difficult to open that lock. If you choose to break it open you are considered an enemy of Hinduism and an anti-Hindu person’.”

Ananya Vajpeyi, in a piece for Scroll.in, spoke of the erosion of public empathy and warned, “Vaishnav jan to tene kahiye je peed paraai jaane re. Soon there will be no one of that description left in the majoritarian Hindu Rashtra.”

Also on Scroll.in, Samar Halarnkar wrote in the context of the response to recent lynchings: “But this is not just about the conservative Hindu Right. What is not in evidence among most Hindus is condemnation, sympathy for those lynched or public expressions of unity with minorities.”

Speaking up as a Hindu

In my experience, everyone speaking up for human rights in India, even if their name sounds Hindu, is loath to identify as one. And anyone identifying publicly as a Hindu, almost without exception, supports the idea of Hindutva.

I have reached out to numerous progressive Hindu-born Indian thinkers and activists, including some of those quoted above, asking if they would identify as a Hindu when they critique and condemn Hindutva. They either explain politely that they are not religious, or say that they are avowed secularists and to speak up as a Hindu in India would alienate minority communities, cause non-Hindu allies to mistrust them, and compromise their commitment to secularism.

Generally, Indian Leftists and progressives react to the notion of a progressive Hindu movement with respectful scepticism. I am sometimes told that Hinduism and Hindus are irredeemable because our scriptures are casteist and elitist at their core.

The result is that practicing Hindus who are against the violent Islamophobia of the Hindu right feel alienated from and unwelcome in the human rights movements in India. Keeping this massive group out strikes me as a strategic, ethical and practical blunder, if the desired goal is justice for all.

The response that many practicing Hindus have to the deep suspicion of Hinduism and Hindus on the part of Leftists and progressives is an understandably defensive one: all Leftists and progressives are accused of being anti-Hindu or Hindu-phobic. The anger that ought to be directed at Hindu nationalists ends up being directed at Leftists and progressives. Any critique of Hindutva is seen as a critique of Hinduism itself and of all Hindus.

Asking “Where are the progressive or dissenting Hindus?” and bemoaning the rise of violent Hindutva is no longer enough. It is imperative we work together to open the eyes of practicing Hindus. Many may be quietly living their lives, praying rather than protesting – perhaps too afraid, too apathetic, or just too worn out to rise up against Hindutva. I believe many are grieving the deaths of those lynched at the hands of Hindus, but just feel powerless. We need to include them, mobilise them, inspire them to take a stand.

When progressive Jews (both practicing religious Jews and those who aren’t religious) advocate for Palestinian rights and an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, they do so as Jews who refuse to cede the public voice of Judaism to right-wing Islamophobic Jews who are committing human rights atrocities.

I call on every Hindu Indian who cares about justice, whether they are religious or not, to speak up as Hindu, and refuse to cede Hinduism and the Hindu public voice to those who want to make India a Hindu Rashtra.

In the words of a wise man from another faith, Rabbi Hillel, from 2000 years ago: “If not now, then when? And if not us, then who?”

Eid-Al-Fitr Celebration in City Hall

Eid-Al-Fitr Celebration in City Hall

Diversity of religions and cultures are no strangers to me. I grew up with a Muslim Father, and a Hindu Mother. I’ve heard melodious Adzans in Mosques, and harmonious Bhajans in Temples. When I left City hall that evening, the last performance of the Tabla, and Guitar lingered in my mind—two completely different instruments coming together to create this beautiful sound. At first glance, it might have seemed like the different sounds from these instruments would have clashed, but instead, they complimented each other, highlighting the beauty in each other’s own unique sound. People and religions are the same in that way. Our differences may at first seem like they will conflict with each other and clash, but a closer examination would show that they do more to highlight the beauty of our uniqueness.

#NotInMyName and the Fight for a Progressive Hinduism

#NotInMyName and the Fight for a Progressive Hinduism

We are clear in rejecting caste—and thus rejecting Brahmanism—as an essential component of our Hinduism. Like Sadhana advisory board member Prof. Anantanand Rambachan, we argue that there is a "theological vision at the heart of Hinduism", based on ideals of ekatva, ahimsa, and seva, "that invalidates the assumptions of inequality, impurity, and indignity that are the foundations of caste belief and practice."

Prem Se Kaho Hum Hindu Hain (Say with love that we are Hindu)

Prem Se Kaho Hum Hindu Hain (Say with love that we are Hindu)

Most importantly, we were determined not to build Sadhana in reaction to more conservative voices and forces in the world. Rather, we would root this work in our understanding of core Hindu teachings: the oneness of all regardless of race, caste, sex, sexual orientation, etc (ekatva); the notion that a life of service (karma yoga) is a valid path to God; the goal of ahimsa (nonviolence/minimizing of suffering and environmental degradation); and dharma (prioritization of righteous action without desire and attachments). We named ourselves Sadhana because “sadhana” means “the practice of faith,” and we want to be an organization of action rather than just words.

To be Brown: Hindu Students Taking a Stand

To be Brown: Hindu Students Taking a Stand

We wish for our oppressions to be recognized — post-election, we are reminded of how our brownness defines our experiences as Americans. We are affected by hate by the systems, institutions and policies of white supremacy, misogyny, racism, economic inequality, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia and xenophobia. We are expected to speak perfect, unaccented English, even though for many of us it is not our first language. Our cultures and religions are appropriated and disrespected. Our cultures are considered “exotic” and “exciting,” though we fight to preserve them every day. We thereby reject this commodification, objectification and tokenization of our cultures and our bodies.