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It’s been a minute since I was last here on Sthapati and I have plenty to catch up on. Something that comes to mind, that I think I’ve been meaning to write about is religious noise.

A long time ago I saw a quote of Mata Amrtanandamayi Ma (Amma, the Hugging Saint) wherein she was to have said something along the lines of, “Those who are busy crying out to the Lord, are likely never to hear Him.” Those aren’t her words, but are some kind of approximation. The exact wording escapes me but the lesson she was communicating touches on something that is central and foundational to Hindu spirituality.

I was reading recently on a blog called the Vaishnava Voice and in a post there the author kind of touched on this in a round-about way. Kind of.

Most people who are familiar with Hindu philosophy or religion or spirituality are also likely familiar with the concept of bhakti. And I think it’s fairly safe to say that the image of bhakti that often comes to peoples’ minds is along the lines of the Hare Krishna movement. They’re well-recognized for their public kirtan events. A number of other instances of the expression of bhakti have involved components of religion that many in the western world recognize as very charismatic. In order to best express our devotion to The One we should dance, and holler, and bang or mrdangas. Right?

Too, many Christian circles are fond of this approach. Some seem very closely related to the Kraishnavs – they enjoy their guitars and drum sets in church and getting people to whoop and holler and roll around on the floor speaking in angelic tongues is a sure sign that you and they are surely saved. And in other Christian circles, like the Westboro Baptist Church, being vocal and very loud about the ills that plague modern humanity is the preferred expression of devotion to the Lord. As an aside, but not entirely, I’ve not known of any bhakti tradition (Hindu or otherwise) that wasn’t in some manner, to some degree, focused on one’s merit before the Lord Almighty. Everyone wants brownie points with the Most High.

I think, though, that something is perhaps “wrong” here. I use that word very hesitantly because as a Hindu I believe everyone has a place at the table, I sincerely do, but I’m not sure what better English word fits there. If you pay attention to virtually every Hindu approach to spirituality, you’ll see that the real direction bhakti is intended to be pointed toward is INWARD.

I’ve been surprised, as I dive deeper and deeper into Sahaj Marg literature and practice, to learn how very pro- bhakti it really is. To be clear, our path is more appropriately categorized as something “Raja” or “Jnana,” but still. Our last guru was a Vaishnav and our practice is an anahata chakra-centered blend of Sufism and Hinduism. It’s probably fair to say that until really dedicating myself to the Sahaj Marg, I made efforts to steer myself away from much of bhaktidom. While respecting and allowing space for paths like the Hare Krishnas, I certainly had no inclination to be even remotely associated with them. And I even kept a healthy distance from most Vaishnav-related things because of how many parallels there are between that chunk of Hinduism and Christianity as a whole.

I dare to say, though, that true bhakti makes your heart and soul dance – not your body, that’s like playing in the shallow end of a pool.  And in my experience, when truly intense and electrifying devotion arises within oneself, the result has been stillness, peace, wisdom, and even some transcendental happenings that have very little to do with the outer world except for losing awareness of it.

I think whether one is an Islamic jihadist, a Kraishnav, or a conservative Christian (all of which are far more alike than not), you might be missing the real benefit and purpose of your path if “making a joyful noise” (or whatever your own version of that is) takes center stage. How can one benefit from the “still small Voice” (biblical reference) within if you’re too busy crying out to the Lord to hear It?

Aum Shri Mahaganeshaya Namaha | Aum Shanti

Awake and Ready

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Having purchased our tickets weeks ago, last night my Beloved and I went finally to see the “Awake – The Life of Yogananda” film. Here’s a link to learn a little more about it. The only place locally that would be playing it is the Keystone Art Cinema Theater and even at that there were only planned to be four screenings of the film. Last night was the third of the four, the last of which is set for around the end of the first week in February.

I hope this won’t come as any kind of spoiler alert, but the movie is exactly what you would think – a film about the life of Yogananda. Kind of documentary style and kinda not. It’s only around 90 minutes, and surprisingly well made. The movie is an excellent timeline of his life, starting quite naturally with his birth and ending very shortly after his physical death. The movie is a mix of interviews with everyone from Daya Mata to someone who was once a secretary for Yogananda to Krishna Das. Such a wide variety of people came into the movie. The local SRF group here set up a table outside of the actual theater and were holding a free raffle for two books – the autobiography and one called India Unveiled. Once the seating was all packed, a man who leads the local group stood before the entire audience and said a little about the film. He also explained that Yogananda often, before speaking to any group or teaching something, would ask the crowd if they are “awake and ready.” He would ask them repeatedly until a response of “awake and ready” was given with sufficient gusto.

There are parts of the movie that show some of the current SRF (Self Realization Fellowship) monks journeying through parts of India as they retrace their guruji’s steps. There’s mention of his lineage going back to Mahavatar Babaji, Lahiri Mahasaya, and Shri Yukteshwar. There’s also mentioned of a sex scandal that involved his best friend from childhood swami Dhirananda, which I didn’t know about before the movie. I also didn’t know that Yogananda has spent some time in Indianapolis speaking and teaching (hatha?) yoga. For anyone interested in seeing scenes “live” from India, the movie delivers this, too. And as icing on the cake, my wife Alanis Morissette’s song, “Still” is played in the last minutes of the film – a song which is Brahman described in music, if ever I’ve heard such a thing.

Obviously, there’s constant mention of his autobiography, and rightly so. That book has – and continues to be – transformational for many seekers of Light. It was instrumental in my own development years ago. Strangely, I was doing some “modeling” (which I won’t go into here for private and somewhat scandalous reasons) and a man I came into contact with – who I recognize as the first non-Indian Hindu I ever knew – gave me a copy of the autobiography. I read it as quickly as I could. This was the beginning of Hindu me. It was around this time that I had started looking into Hinduism as my home and had just acquired my very first Ganesha murti and an image of the Divine Mother. This was so long ago that Indiana didn’t yet have it’s own Hindu temple – we all met at the India Community Center on the city’s west side. Without going into many details, I had some of my very first mystical experiences around this time and I remember some of the scenes from the autobiography really resonating with me and my experiences.

Yogananda was certainly my first Indian guru and watching the movie not only felt like a nice homage to this teacher of mine but also felt like a return to my roots. It was such a touching film that I feel inspired to contact the local SRF community and see if I can make some friends. I’m not sure I will, though. I can certainly suggest, for those who relate to the SRF or consider Yogananda their guru and read and follow his teachings, that this movie is a “must see” and I think I’m putting together a group of local Sahaj Marg abhyasis who have expressed interest in this that we can go see it together.

 

 

Aum Shri Mahaganeshaya Namaha | Aum Shanti

गरम चाय

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One of the first phrases I ever learned in Hindi is the title of this post: hot tea! I’ve had “garam” chai and thanda ( ठंडा ) chai – in my experience the only difference being temperature. In almost every taste of the store-bought stuff I’ve been disappointed. I’ve tried the Starbucks version which reminded me very much of the most watered down brew of chai with dishwater suds mixed in. I once had a container of this powder stuff that you just stirred into hot water. It wasn’t bad, but also wasn’t good enough for me to buy more. I also remember it being really loaded with things like sugars and sodium and calories, which surprised me for crap that was stirred into hot water. Definitely haven’t bought more of that. Last night when my Beloved and I were at an art cinema to watch “Awake – The Life of Yogananda,” (which I plan to write about here shortly) I bought a hot chai beverage from the bar and it literally was the Tazo brand – pre-made, poured from the same container I’d have bought it in at the grocery, heated up, and then I was charged $6 for it. So disappointed. And I’m aware McDonald’s has a chai, but I can’t bring myself to try it.

There’s a manager guy at work who is known to have made his own chai on a regular basis. I asked him a few times about the recipe or the method and he’s not been terribly helpful – I think mostly because he isn’t doing it “the right way” (by his own standards, not mine) and feels shy about that. The only other thing I can share about my experience with chai is that I once had some at a satsangh I was attending. It was about as fresh as it could have been since it was might right then – but it was so incredibly hot (again, temperature) that I was very nearly seriously burned just touching it to my lips and I remember it being a solid 45 minutes before it had cooled sufficiently even for me to actually sip it. Once I could though, it was delicious – but the experience was already ruined. Honestly, I might be a bit sensitive to temps but how can anyone drink a fluid so hot it would blister your flesh?

 

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This has led me to the adventure of making my own. I’ve looked around online and the recipes vary a bit, but ingredients that are common include cinnamon stick, whole cloves, cardamom pods, ginger, a sweetener like sugar, black tea, and milk. There are some significant variances though, between recipes and methods, and I did find one recipe that mentioned Star (of) Anise and in looking around it seems that this ingredient (and a couple others) isn’t found in each recipe. Aside from sugar and black tea, the photo below shows the basic ingredients I’ll be putting inside the cheesecloth when I make my own.

 

Star (of) Anise, Stick Cinnamon, Cardamom Pods, & Whole Cloves

Star (of) Anise, Stick Cinnamon, Cardamom Pods, & Whole Cloves

 

The first recipe I encountered basically amounted to boiling down some milk, brewing into it some tea, and straining / soaking (in cheesecloth) the aforementioned solid ingredients with sugar being just stirred in (not necessarily in the order I’ve mentioned those steps). I plan to use this as my overall approach to the task and will be aided by online recipes and YouTube videos.

We’ll see how this goes!

Aum Shri Mahaganeshaya Namaha | Aum Shanti

Bite Me, Ethically – Part 2

In the last post, I began writing about vegetarianism and my evolution where it is concerned. Truly, there are many people whose “package” as a unique being has meant that vegetarianism is wrong. And, truly, there are those of the persuasion that this couldn’t possibly be wrong for ANYONE. My views have evolved from vegetarianism not even being on the radar, to thinking I needed to adopt it and that other should too, to recognizing that not only are there a bajillion people out there for whom this is plainly wrong but also that – at times – I might be one of those people. That feeling, of meat being increasingly not right for me, has definitely plateaued. I no longer feel like it’s something I need to fuss about in any context, but I’d like to continue to explain a bit about where I sit with it all and why.

As I mentioned in the last post – it’s simply not right for some people. There could be many reasons for this and some of those reasons may well be temporary. Another blogger has touched on this a number of times in his own journey with the matter. There are times even when a person might very much want to avoid meat and it’s just not in the cards.

For some abstaining from meat means health issues. I’ve known a number of vegetarians who admit that they aren’t “healthy” eaters – but don’t worry! They’re avoiding meat so it’s all good. WHAT?!?! That’s ridiculous, and I would argue that any karmic benefit gained from not eating meat would be just as quickly and easily wasted by neglecting the “temple” of one’s own body. Ask any shilpi or temple architect and it might be argued that if you can’t do it properly, then you’re perhaps better off (in many ways) just not doing it at all. And along the lines of karma, I’ve written before about how our reactions and sentiments carried about meat eating can create way more karma than we’re unloading by avoiding meat.

I also, in many contexts, find vegetarianism to be hypocritical where it relates to sentient life. Many people who are vegetarian have made the choice to be so because they are uneasy about the idea that sentient beings likes cows, chickens, and pigs are farmed for food. Of course, given the chance and freedom these life forms would opt out of landing on your dinner plate or mine. They are aware of their own existence and would prefer to keep on existing, right? Right.

So, where in all of this does it become okay to pick-n-choose which sentient life we value and which we do not? Isn’t that in itself cruel? Yet that’s exactly what we’re doing as vegetarians. You see, if animals aren’t being farmed then plants will be. And plants cannot be farmed without the loss of life. I’m not talking about broccoli being aware of itself. I’m talking about the MILLIONS of instances of life that are killed just to make one bowl of meat-free salad. Even if we exclude the use of pesticides and likewise exclude the massive number of insects that are killed by them, any farmer will tell you of the massive number of snakes, turtles, rabbits, raccoons, mice and other rodents, and even larger forms of life, that are butchered in the fields where our lettuce and kale are grown.

So I’m morally evolved if I value the life of a cow but not that of a deer? There’s an interesting and well-written article on the Huffington Post about how true veganism (obviously different than the vegetarianism I’ve been writing about) should actually mean people become insectivores. You can read it here. There’s an article here that pertains to vegetarianism and it’s role in the destruction of life. If we’re choosing meat-free eating primarily because of principles like ahimsa and suffering of sentient beings, then you’re absolutely a hypocrite. I know those words might seem strong to some well-meaning people, but I say it’s true because anywhere you look in Hinduism’s holy texts you can read that the core, the seed, of all life is the same regardless of the life form. A cow might look and behave differently than a fox or a human because that’s the difference of living an existence as a cow versus another life form – but the amsha (spark) at the core of any life form is not different based on the life form itself. To think your salad has less blood on it than your brother’s steak is ignorance. And to think a cow or rat or praying mantis have differing values or worth is hypocrisy.

The plain fact is that, at this point in human history, choosing vegetarianism (or veganism) for reasons related to saving sentient life is not only hypocritical but also it’s not really even that humane. But people will believe whatever they wish and absolutely will rationalize whatever makes them feel better about their choices – because that’s what we all really want: justification for our ways.

There are also some texts sacred to Hindus that advise that the authentic sage, or advanced soul, eats whatever is given to him. I’d have to check, but I think one place I came across that was one of the Gitas (not the Bhagavad Gita, obviously). That was an immense lesson for me. The implications are profound and have nothing whatsoever to do with carelessness.

Obviously, all of these things should be considered and reconsidered when deciding to be a vegetarian or not, and the REAL reasons behind why one might. For me, the preference will remain overwhelmingly in favor of flesh-free eats, but probably not strictly and also not likely for the same reasons as the bulk of other people making the same choice.

Thank you.

Aum Shri Mahaganeshaya Namaha – Aum Shanti

Bite Me, Ethically – Part 1

I’ve been meaning to write and complete this post for waaaay too long. Between obligations with school, work, and trying to iron out home buying / selling – it’s been a lot to juggle. The death of my birth mother didn’t help things to slow down any. The last six or eight months have meant a lot of evolution in regard to my views on eating and I hope to explain that to some degree in this post.

Growing up, we were raised somewhere in between allowed to eat anything we wanted and not. The general rule was just about anything in moderation, with a careful eye on junk food. I recall that we always had home-cooked meals, almost every day. I recall, too, that we weren’t allowed to stuff ourselves just whenever and often if we didn’t want to eat what was cooked for dinner, then we either caught hell or were sent to bed early, or both. We could drink as much milk or water as we wanted (we would often go through 5 gallons of milk in a week’s time!), but soda was something we had to receive permission to drink and even then that permission was granted only occasionally and for limited portions. My mom and her son both have battled cholesterol issues since forever, and we sometimes ate Egg Beaters instead of real eggs, but otherwise we really could just about have had anything to eat – in moderation.

Of course as I grew into adulthood this was the foundation of my decision making where it regarded food – although I sometimes ignored that foundation blatantly. In my early twenties I ate as much of anything as I wanted. My metabolism was apparently through the roof and despite eating most of a package of hot dogs in one sitting or consuming an entire box of Little Debbie Swiss Rolls in 20 minutes or less, I found it very tough to gain weight.

As I entered mid-twenties, and even while ending that decade of my life, the weight crept on slowly and it was kind of nice. Where before the only feedback about weight I ever received was how jealous some were of my for being allowed (by Nature?) to eat whatever I wanted without apparent consequence, I began instead to hear how well the additional pounds actually fit me. Now, as I enter my mid-thirties I have to be more diligent about content and portion control when choosing what to eat – this is the time of my life when, if I’m not careful, I’ll end up hypertensive or pre-diabetic like so many others.

Interestingly, it was in my early twenties that I adopted more of a Hindu identity and throughout that development it never once crossed my mind that I should eat “like a Hindu eats.” Of course, hindsight being 20 / 20, I can see how immature and frankly amateur that ideology is. It’s entirely backwards! You should do things (or don’t do things) because of what that means to you – not because you have adopted a label and need to make it fit. You do things, and then wear the most fitting label. That is, if you’re into labels. Another thing I didn’t realize back then – which holds true even today, over a decade later – is that the overwhelming majority of authentic / native / “legit” Hindus I know (I’m specifically referencing ethnic Hindus and of those, those who practice what is known as the Hindu religion) are omnivorous. With that in mind, trying to “eat like a Hindu” is silly.

So, for the last 2-3 years (???) I’ve mostly been a vegetarian. But not really. All along I’ve allowed myself to have fish and some other seafood when the other options available were bad choices – although consumption of seafood was still a rare occurrence. I’d considered myself a Hindu for most of a decade before the decision to begin cutting flesh from my diet. I never once really, truly, or deeply felt that consuming meat was somehow “against” being a Hindu, just that it was increasingly not “right” for me.

The last two months, or so, have been very educational on what it means to be a good person in regard to food choices and my eyes have really been opened.

My gym monthly publishes a magazine called, “Experience Life” and as any magazine created by a gym would be, it’s filled with all manner of tips and educational articles that relate to being a healthier person in a human body. Every issue has sections devoted to educating folks on how to identify healthier foods and provides things like websites, stores, and recipes to help people access and incorporate these possible choices into their daily living. A few issues ago there was a significantly large article in the magazine about “ethical” eating. I’ll admit it wasn’t what I thought it would be. It consisted, basically, of a series of interviews with people – some of whom were everyday people like myself, some were activists of one kind or another, and some were food professionals of one kind or another (dieticians, chefs, farmers, etc…). For some reason, one stood out among them all. I don’t know why because her story wasn’t entirely unique among the interviews, although she was obviously quite educated and experienced first hand the things she talked about. She grew up like I did, enjoying a wide chunk of the broad spectrum of what humanity considers edible. But then she made the choice to be a vegetarian. Then, because of how we farm animals, she went vegan. (In my experience, people often become vegetarians for karmic reasons and vegans for socio-political ones.) I think she also tried everything from the Paleo diet to South Beach and everything in between. The end result of these decades of food warrioring left her quite educated on how her body responds to certain dietary exclusions.

She was consistently her sickest and weakest when excluding meats. This confused me a little because so many modern health problems can be traced directly to meat consumption. But that was the lesson of her truth (a shared truth she holds in common with millions of other very caring, educated, concerned and even spiritual people) – her current existence is better with at least some meat.

I found myself hearing mental echoes of what I’ve read in the Gita where Krishna advises Arjuna that nobody’s dharma is meant for someone else. When you zoom out to the broader “Hindu” picture and include things like Ayurveda, doshas, samskaras, karmas, and other things, it becomes easy to see how what’s right for one person could absolutely be wrong for another. Each human existence is an incredibly unique bundle of components that are still being added to and subtracted from – and have been for eons.

This was a bit of an eye-opener for me.

Aum Shri Mahaganeshaya Namaha – Aum Shanti

Movies

Sometime around the 27th of December, I came across this piece online about “How Movies Embraced Hinduism: Without You Even Noticing.”

I read it, and recall being a little disappointed in the actual content – I think, based on the headline / title, I expected there might be a little more substance to it, but whatever. In my opinion, pieces like this are good for getting people interested in Hinduism, or – for those already interested but perhaps not sure where to start – for giving a snipit of some of Hinduism’s foundational and shared beliefs. I recall first learning about Hinduism and almost immediately finding parallels between learning about Hinduism and how I learned the German language.

You see, I studied German formally for a number of years, and quite soon tested out every level offered by my school. After demonstrating my proficiency and speaking to the board, I even taught it for a little over two years – allowing me to watch my peers catch up.

I started by taking the “first year” German class. It wasn’t terribly challenging, but I think most year one classes aren’t meant to be. Then, that following summer between school years, I spent the whole school break out by my family’s pool soaking in the sun’s rays and reading a German-English dictionary. Yes, I read the dictionary. It had been a gift to me from a woman who worked for my mother at the time. She’d married a soldier (now deceased) she met while he was stationed in Germany decades earlier, and the dictionary she gave me was a “German” German-English dictionary – this meant that even the English side of the dictionary was in German. That’s fine and dandy until you find yourself looking up 17 words in order to learn the one you originally set out to learn.

But it was actually real fun for me, as I’ve always loved language. I drank up everything that Woerterbuch could offer as quickly as I soaked up the many goldening rays of the sun. That much explains why I returned to school knowing vocabulary that was light years ahead of myclassmates, but something I’m still unable to explain is the grammar. I started second year also knowing, almost fully, German grammar. It must have been something I picked up unknowingly while making a deliberate effort to add words to my vocab list. Half way through that year I tested out of everything, as I have mentioned and the rest is history.

But that story parallels my own process and experience of learning about Hinduism. I often set out to learn one thing or another and in the process of fully learning about and understanding that one thing, I almost HAVE to learn about the 500 things that are in some way related to it. It can make learning a bit slower, but the thoroughness and depth cannot be matched.

And so, despite being somewhat disappointed in the article from The Guardian that I linked to earlier in this post, I also find value in it. It doesn’t actually explain much, in my opinion. But it explains much more than the vast majority of movie watchers would otherwise ever be aware of and might somehow spark an interest they didn’t know they even had.

Aum Shri Mahaganeshaya Namaha – Aum Shanti