Mother Shiva

I read a post recently, by an author I read regularly. Her most recent post is what I wanted to bring your attention to – that can be found here. In case you care not to go there and read it (it’s not terribly long), I’ll share the essence of it as I perceived it: The power of bhakti. In the past, when I’ve written about bhakti, I’ve been critical. Please believe: I still am.

At odds with the message of a few modern gurus, I think bhakti is a poor choice for modern man to try to forge an entire path from. However, I can admit that this is my personal inclination based on my personal experience, and while I’d love for others to have the same realization, I don’t expect it. Still, bhakti has immense value when handled appropriately and what I find amazing is the control of bhakti exhibited by the author’s son, as mentioned in the post. He seems to either be a very clever guesser or he’s perhaps a future jnani.

She was chanting to Shiva when her son approached her with a request to chant Kali instead. (The mantra she was chanting is known as panchaksharamantra – the five (panch) letter (akshara) mantra. If Vaishnavs have “mahamantra” revealed by Prabhupad, then this is the mahamantra of Shaivites – only it has Vedic origin.) Initially she resisted, to which he responded that Shiva is a nickname for The Mother anyway. Her son is hardly a few years past the toddlering age and yet he speaks as though he recognizes The Mother in all and already seems to realize that the Names are a convention employed within Maya. Further, in many Hindu sects a symptom of bhakti is that the various gods other than the ishtadevata are known to be other/lesser manifestations of the god of choice for that sect. With that in mind, if his words might be taken to imply the development of Jnana Yoga within him (as I suspect), surely the response he gave his mother should likewise imply the development of Bhakti Yoga.

No matter how you slice it, when you get into the meat of Hinduism (hey now… many Hindus DO eat meat) you’ll practically invariably come to learn that (almost) no matter what god you worship, that god is lifeless without the animating Shakti supporting him. As far as I can tell, Chaitanya is the only vaishnav “manifestation” of god that is known to be a two-in-one composition of The Mother and The Father, in that context known as Vishnu and Lakshmi. For those of a shaivite inclination, the more exotic and well known image of Ardhanarishwar is given – less androgynous than Chaitanya, and literally a half/half of Shiva and Shakti.

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That author’s son likely doesn’t yet recognize the profound depth inherent to his own words, but from where I stand his little internal landscape is already a demonstrating a fine and productive mix of Jnana and Bhakti. Surely, for him and anyone else, a similar approach involving such a beautiful balance between Bhakti and Jnana will result in a swift departure from the wheel of samsara.

Om Shanti

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Christmas in California, in April

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Californication/Kali-fornia
So…I’ve been writing an essay pertaining to the importance of a Hindu American identity. It’s been a good little journey so far. I was reading some in The Idiot’s Guide to Hinduism today when I came across an interesting tidbit of information I can’t not share with you.

I say the following ENTIRELY WITHOUT disrespect to the Christians of the United States: It’s absolutely amazing how many people in this country truly and genuinely believe that America was founded by Christians and is a Christian nation. Neither is true. The Pilgrims were certainly Christians of their own kind, but most of the “founding fathers” were definitely not. Theists, yes. But not Christian. Anyone who yearns for truth and finds value in not only discovering it, but in thinking on their own can do minimal research and find this fact. The same can easily be done with so many other misconceptions many Americans “know” is true. Having said that, here’s what I recently learned about the history of the naming of the state of California. (As a wordy, this the stuff I LOVE to read!)

According to historians, the state of California is named after a dark-skinned woman warrior named Calafia, who was a character in a famous sixteenth-century Spanish novel. Aggressive, half-naked Native American women reminded the Spanish conquistadors of Califia, and of the Amazons, too, which is why they named the Amazon River after them! But where did the figure of Califia come from?

This fictional queen was based on an ancient European goddess named Koliada, who represented the winter solstice. She was black-skinned because she symbolized the darkest time of the year and fierce because winters in the Northern Hemisphere are often brutal. But she was honored, too: her festival was celebrated with extravagant feasts and lavish gift giving. When Christianity replaced the old religion in Europe, her winter festival was changed into a new holiday called Christmas.

The name Koliada means “goddess of time,” appropriately enough for a solstice deity. Her names in Greek(Kalanda) and Latin(Calenda) are the source of our word “calendar.” In antiquity she was worshipped throughout the entire Indo-European world. In Russia she was known as Kolyada. In northeastern India she was called Kalika. Hindus today still worship her as the fierce, dark goddess Kali.

There you have it!

Shivohum and Same to You, too.

namaste-sanskirtOne of my favorite publications is a Shaivite magazine, “Hinduism Today.” I’ve had a subscription for years and have purchased a few subscriptions for others as well. Whether one happens to be a vaishnav, shaivite, shakta, or smarta, this magazine is invaluable. It’s been instrumental in my own growth, for sure. One thing I repeatedly adore about it is that, although it is technically sectarian, it differs from most other sects in its openness and inclusiveness. As such, while it’s definitely a Shiva-oriented source, it does great work in covering the broader picture of Hinduism and the Hindu diaspora.

The most recent issue has a focus on Swami Vivekananda, which has been really great for me. His lineage appears to be from the Shakta denomination of Sanatana Dharma, his own guru being a priest for Kali at one of Her temples … in Dakshineshwar, I think. Along with this focus on Vivekananda and all he did for our faith, there are various other articles. One of these deals with the Namaste greeting, and is what this post’s primary focus is meant to be.

Namaste

The article begins in pointing out the differences and immensely varied implications to be found in the Western handshake and the Anjali Mudra (Namaste greeting). For the sake of brevity and keeping focus, from here out I’ll use bullet points to list what I think are the main talking points of the article.

  • The handshake originates in medieval Europe. Weaponry on the person used to be a more common sight, and so was fear. The resultant “accidentally retributive” attacks were sometimes thwarted by showing the other guy your open hand (“I’m unarmed, don’t stab me!!!”). Later, with a little cultural evolution, the open hands were joined upon meeting or passing, and we now have the handshake.
  • The anjali mudra is highly symbolic: “Anj” means to adore, celebrate, honor; the pressing of the hands together symbolizes the bringing together of spirit and matter; the hands coming together symbolizes the self meeting the Self.
  • Three main forms of the Namaste greeting exist: 1) Simple meeting of the hands, vertically at the solar plexus; 2) Same as before, plus the addition of raising the hands until the upper fingertips touch one’s third eye; 3) Same as before, plus the addition of taking the joined hands to a position above the head at the aperture in the crown chakra known as brahma-randhra. These three variations are progressively formal.
  •  The handshake is an outwardly conquering gesture. It hints at Western man’s desire for conquering and acquiring. An overly strong handshake can be meant for purposes of intimidation, and a too-weak handshake is also very telling.
  • Western culture is summed up in the handshake: reaching out horizontally to greet another; we reveal our humanity; we convey how strong we are, how nervous, how aggressive or how passive. Namaste reaches in vertically to acknowledge that, in truth, there is no “other.”
  • It’s more civilized to Namaste instead of shaking hands. Popes never shake hands. Kings never shake hands. Even mothers don’t shake hands with their own children. Namaste is cosmically different: Kings do namaste, Satgurus namaste, mothers namaste their own families, we all namaste before God, a holy man, or a holy place. The namaste gesture indicates our inner valuing of the sacredness of all. Namaste is also more practical: A politician or performer can greet fifty-thousand people with one Namaste and the honor can be returned.
  • The gesture has a subtle effect on the aura and nerve system. The nerve currents of the body converge in the feet, the solar plexus and the hands. To balance this energy, and prevent its loss from the body, yogis and meditators sit cross-legged and bring their hands together. The anjali mudra is a simple yogic asana.
  • An increasing number of celebrities and others around crowds are adopting the Namaste greeting as a polite means of avoiding the transmission of contact diseases. The Namaste greeting has become a veritable icon of Indianness, although an ever-increasing number of non-Indians are also using the greeting.

I’m not sure that all of these points do justice to the practicality, intuition, and value that the Namaste greeting holds versus the handshake. Hopefully these points, as highlighted from the article, hint at some of this.

Om Shanti

The Knowers of Day and Night

One of Hinduism’s characteristics that I adore most is its logic and reason, and inherent scientific nature. Of all the many world religions, dharmic paths are most often known for this. (Of course, there’s plenty of superstition and other nonsense, but that’s mostly cultural baggage and has little to do with the actual religion.)

Every year around this time, I hear people wonder aloud, “Where’d the year go?!” The year didn’t actually go anywhere, of course, and it certainly didn’t go anywhere any faster than it would normally. Still, many people think more about time during this season than in others. We’re wondering how the year managed to slip away, assessing our achievements during the last 365 days, and formulating plans for the next 365.

Invariably, this kind of thought patterning will pull one into some kind of disappointment. In the Western, linear, concept of time there are no second chances. You can, in theory, only go forward or backwards. And since going back into time has yet to be mastered by the average human, moving on is the only actual option. Thus, if you missed the mark -you’re stuck, having missed the mark. What’s done is done.

In Hinduism, though, time is cyclical. In connection with Karma, what goes around literally comes back around. This is a terrific source of hope for Hindus. Try your best right now, so as to avoid the need for repetition (aka, achieve moksha), but whatever deficit you end with, you simply try your best again to compensate for in the next life.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 8 (shloka 17, I think), it’s explained, “Sahasra-yuga-paryantam ahar yad brahmano viduh yatrim yuga-sahasrantam te’ho-ratra-vido janah” or “Those who know Brahma’s day which comprises the duration of four billion three hundred and twenty million years and his night also the duration of four billion three hundred and twenty million years are knowers of day and night.”

As with all Hindu scripture, there are multiple levels of meaning here. All aspiring yogis/yoginis hope to be a “Knower of Day and Night.” Asato ma sat gamaya, right? At any rate, most people either aren’t familiar with the Hindu time structure or don’t understand it well. Allow me to offer some clarification.

In Hinduism, time (kala) is sometimes personified as a god, which is known to be virtually unstoppable and is worshipped with much devotion. As I mentioned before, Hindu time is cyclical: perpetually stopping where it starts and starting where it stops. The origination of Time is God, and since God is The Cause for all else, Time is seen as a manifestation of God and essentially persists without beginning or end.

“The creation of each universe presupposes the destruction of a former one. Its span of life is equal in length to its period of “death.” These periods are as long as ‘the time it would take to annihilate a mountain of granite, but touching it with a piece of cotton, once every hundred years.'” -Vitsaxis

Beyond this circular speak, though, time is quite easily analyzed and measured, and is used as a means for measuring age and progression. And the Hindu conception of time here, from a more scientific perspective, is about as accurate and reasonable as you’re likely to find within any actual religious path. Below I’m including the basic Hindu break-down of time for any one cycle of creation.

“The term (duration) of every universe, a ‘time-cycle,’ is divided into four periods which are called Yugas. During the first, and by far the longest period, the Krta Yuga, also called Satya Yuga, the divine moral order rules unchallenged. During the second, which lasts three-quarters of the length of the first and is known as Treta Yuga, the divine order for the first time begins to be shaken. During the third, which lasts only half as long as the original, and is known as Dvapara Yuga, the situation becomes dangerously worse. Finally during the fourth, the Kali Yuga, …which is to last a quarter as long as the first, the world falls so low from the divine order that it becomes ripe for destruction so that a new order may take its place.

These four Yugas, taken as a whole, form one Mahayuga. A thousand Mahayugas form a Kalpa or ‘one day of Brahma.’ Finally, every Kalpa is divided into fourteen periods called Manvantaras, each one of which begins with a flood. According to Hindu writ, we are living in the seventh Manvantara of the present Kalpa.” -Vitsaxis

With so much (cyclical) time on our hands, let’s see each new and passing minute as our opportunity -not as the opportunity we may have wasted and now look back on. In a universe where everything ebbs and flows, comes and goes … and comes back again, there is no waste. No missed chances. Look into the new year knowing that, in some form or another, what’s gone away will return. Embrace your experiences. You’ve literally earned them. And when each experience meets you where you are, create results that are an improvement from before.

Om Shanti

Ganesham Bhajema

Although not everything about my religious/spiritual journey in this life has been pleasant, I’m immensely grateful for every step. After being forced to part ways with Christianity, and wandering for a brief year or two, I came to discover what might be modernly recognized as the principal deities of Hinduism, namely Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. It was in learning about the Trimurti that I learned about other manifestations of the divine such as Vayu, Indra, Surya, Agni, Lakshmi, Hanuman, Ganesha, Saraswati, and many others. Initially there seemed to be a profound yet finite hierarchy within this pantheon; some gods being the husbands/wives/fathers/mothers/sons/daughters of others. For a time, most of my learning centered around acquainting myself with these relationships and their histories.

As the depth of my knowledge increased, I gained the realization that these gods were variously known to be faces of the One Supreme Reality, as well as actually worshipped by their respective devotees as That One. I found this to be an interesting facet of Sanatana Dharma that is missing from religions of the West. I also found this to be one of the single most important things a dharmi could come to know. In fact, this is literally foundational to the faith: Ekam sat vipraha bahudh’ vadanti, Truth is one, though the wise recognize it variously. It’s because of this foundation of the Hindu belief system that I’ve always wondered why a Hindu is able to genuinely believe that any such “face” the One might happen to wear, is actually the “complete” manifestation of Brahman.

Having said that, I’ll say two other things.

  1. I feel that each of the Hindu gods (it’s been said that there are over 330 million) does absolutely represent Brahman, although incompletely -if that even makes any sense. Truly, only Brahman is That, and That is impossible to fully describe from the perspective of human language and conception – which might account for why there are a bajillion deities recognized within Hindu panentheism, and which is also a testament to the vastness of Hindu religion and the fruit of its ancient and on-going efforts to paint an ever clearer picture of what Reality is. In no other religion known to humans on Earth is the picture of God provided in such an encompassing way. No joke. But each god, while worshipable as a representation of The All, at best can only point to some of That All.
  2. I’ve spent more than one-third of my current life learning about and actively living Hindu Dharma. A lot of this time, and certainly especially in my earlier Hindu years, has been spent (as I already mentioned) continually educating myself. Some of this self education has been very basic: “This is such-and-such god, and this is what he/she governs/represents.” It didn’t take long before I noticed overlapping from one god to the next. A basic example is that of goddesses Kali and Durga. Both are distinct in their own ways, yet both are known as fierce, protecting Mothers and are understood to be magnificent but volatile faces for the Shakti that animates everything. I think it’s because of encountering this that I’m not likely to ever say that one god is actually supreme over the rest. Not in all cases, but in enough, an attribute of one god is equally as applicable to another. With that in mind, why would it be logical to say that Kali is supreme, when Durga has any number of things in common with Her? And what of the attributes typically ascribed to Durga that don’t apply to Mother Kali? Do those render Durga superior to Kali? This can be carried over and applied to a huge number of Hindu deities.

Sri Ganesh is (kind of) an exception. Or at least to my current personal sensibilities, He’s the closest thing to an exception that I’ve found. I say He’s kind of an exception, because I believe you are either an exception or you’re not, and technically speaking He’s not. Why then, even bring Him up? If for no other reason, because the greatest amount of the aforementioned deity-deity overlapping occurs with Him, AKA from my perspective it seems as though the greatest number of Brahman’s attributes apply to Ganesha. I don’t think this alone makes Him an exception, but it does make Him stand out to me.

Dear Reader, allow me to provide a slight disclaimer at this point: I’m not professing to be any sort of expert. I’m also not in any way intending to invalidate anyone else’s beliefs or ishtadevata or marg or …anything. What I’m saying in this post, and in the next few to come, applies strictly to my experience. If it happens to also apply to your own, by all means let me know, and we’ll relate our commonality. If your experience has been different, and seemingly conflicting to what I’ve posted here and am about to post, you are also welcome to let me know this, provided you respect our difference as it’s been expressed in my writing. I’ll ask just one favor of you before you express your differing viewpoint. Read at least the final paragraph of this.

Om Shanti