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

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

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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.

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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

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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.