Sunday, June 21, 2009

Radha Krishna temple in Cambridge, ON

This is me with Amit Airi. I stayed at his house for a couple of days in June and spoke at the Cambridge, ON, Radha Krishna temple.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Doris Jakobsh

At my talk at the University of Waterloo last night, I met Doris Jakobsh, professor of religion at the University. Today she came over to Shivji's house and we had breakfast together.

She is principally a student of Sikhism and specifically of women in the Sikh tradition. Her publication on the subject, Relocating Gender in Sikh History has stirred up quite a bit of controversy.

When I was in Toronto in the 90's, Lou Fenech was also involved in another Sikh controversy. So I was a little dismayed to hear that the thin-skinned element of that community has taken the "scientological" approach of using blunderbusses to kill mosquitoes.

So the three of us had quite a discussion on various aspects of this super-defensiveness on the part of religious groups in response to criticism. She told of how when in India last year, she went to Potiala, where she had learned Punjabi, etc., and was told by professors she had thought were her friends that she was not welcome there because of what she had written. When she pressed these "friends" about whether they had even read her book, they admitted they hadn't. I could see that she was even now quite emotional about it.

I also had my stories to share, but I have done this kind of thing too many times to hurt any more, nor think it worthwhile to share. But it is a constant source of amazement how delving into the history of a religious sect or any other kind of close-knit, sensitive community, can raise so many hackles. What comes as a surprise, too, is that they often fail to recognize that those they ostracize are in truth allies. Truth should never be seen as an enemy. Does it really hurt that badly to recognize that our religious communities and even their founders and saints are human and may have very human flaws?

To support this, Doris cited the testimony of some of her own students, who wrote to her or told her personally that they had become better Sikhs after taking her course. She spoke very enthusiastically of the doctrine of grace in Sikhism and compared it to Martin Luther. She herself is a Protestant in the United Church and the above subject only came up after she and Shivji were praising the Sikhs' commitment to charitable works and I suggested that the United Church, which is known for its own commitment to such activities would form a natural ecumenical partnership. She said, "That's interesting, but the fact is I don't have many Sikh friends anymore." Sad.

Another thing Doris said that I liked came up when she started talking of a proposed tour of India that she is planning for next year with a group of religious studies students. She is indeed intending to bring them to SRSG, which I highly recommended. But in this connection she enthusiastically championed the idea that teaching religion or the liberal arts in general should never be seen as a purely academic exercise. She recognizes that most of the students in her courses are there as a part of their search for meaning and purpose in life, and she feels that she should teach with that in mind. She joked, "I have tenure now, so I can do it." At any rate, I approve wholeheartedly.

Radhe Shyam.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Swami Satyamitranand Giri

On Monday, I had the occasion to meet and hear Swami Satyamitranand Giri Maharaj of Haridwar speak at the Brahmarishi Mission in Kitchener. Funny how you go around the world to meet people who live just next door. But then, I don't get out that much in Rishikesh.

As usual, when listening to sadhus speak, I feel the great gulf of difference in the quality of speech of a native Hindi speaker and my own stumbling and bumbling mode of expression. I know I say this every time, but I had just spoken the day before--stumbling and bumbling.

I was extremely please to hear Maharaj begin his mangalacharan with a verse to the Holy Name--

kalyāṇānāṁ nidhānaṁ kali-mala-mathanaṁ
pāvanaṁ pāvanānāṁ
pātheyaṁ yan mumukṣoḥ sapadi para-pada-
prāptaye procyamānam |
viśrāma-sthānam ekaṁ kavi-vara-vacasāṁ
jīvanaṁ sajjanānāṁ
bījaṁ dharma-drumasya prabhavatu bhavatāṁ
bhūtaye kṛṣṇa-nāma
The name of Krishna
is the fountainhead of all auspiciousness:

it is the destroyer of all the ills of the Age of Kali;
it is the purifier of all purifiers,
and the provisions the pilgrim must take
on his quest for liberation;
it can instantly give the supreme attainment,
on simply being properly uttered;
it is the one place
where all the finest words of the poets find refuge;
it is the very life of the pious and saintly
and the seed of the tree of religion.

May it forever bring you all good fortune.
(Padyavali 19)

Of course, he said Rama-nama instead of Krishna-nama. But that was no less a source of joy.

The subject of his talk was sat-sanga, which was the way that Didiji introduced him, thanking him for bestowing his saintly association on the devotees.

He quote many other favorite verses from the Gita and Bhagavatam, though he was mostly citing Goswami Tulasidas. Nevertheless, on the whole he was very bhakti oriented.

Some other verses that you don't hear very often that I will remember here are:

ananya-cetāḥ satataṁ yo māṁ smarati nityaśaḥ
tasyāhaṁ sulabhaḥ pārtha nitya-yuktasya yoginaḥ
I am easily obtained, O son of Pritha, by the yogi who is always disciplined and unceasingly remembers me without deviation. (Gita 8.14)

Also, Swamiji used Gita 3.11 in a way I had never heard before, using it as a description of the relation of devotees: By mutually nourishing one another, you will attain the supreme good." (parasparaM bhAvayantaH zreyaH param avApsyatha) This verse is actually on quite a different topic, so perhaps he was thinking of these sweet slokas from the Bhagavatam, 11.3.30-31:

parasparānukathanaṁ pāvanaṁ bhagavad-yaśaḥ
mitho ratir mithas tuṣṭir nivṛttir mitha ātmanaḥ
smarantaḥ smārayantaś ca mithoghaugha-haraṁ harim
bhaktyā sanjātayā bhaktyā bibhraty utpulakāṁ tanum
Devotees talk to each other about the sanctifying glories of the Lord. They find pleasure and satisfaction in each other’s association, teaching each other about how all their distresses can be brought to an end, remembering and reminding each other of Krishna who takes away all sins. From this devotional service in practice they develop a higher devotion which makes them ecstatic and the hairs on their bodies stand on end.

In any case, it certainly brings great pleasure to the ears and heart when one hears Hari katha nicely done, and it certainly inspires me to try to do better myself in glorifying the Divine Couple.

Talk at Ram Dham temple in Kitchener, ON

First let me thank you all for giving me this opportunity. I would especially like to thank Shiva Datta Talwar and Chandrakant Kothari for inviting me. I also offer my most respectful pranams to Didiji, Swami Chaitanya Jyoti Parivrajika, and Swami Hari Priya Parivrajika, who have been such kind hosts.

I cannot help but be amazed at this situation, as a white man who has been living in Rishikesh, speaking here in Canada on spiritual subjects to Hindus of various backgrounds. And doing so in Hindi, to boot. But that is really no more amazing than having two sannyasinis leading a Hindu congregation.

Yesterday, Didiji was telling me that she will be conducting a sacred thread ceremony for a young brahmin boy in someone's home. This is such a departure from traditional Indian culture that one has to face the fact of evolution in society, religion and spirituality. For a woman to take sannyas, and for a sannyasi, man or woman, to play this kind of priestly role, is something that even fifty years ago would have been practically unheard of.

It is a testament to Brahmarshi Vishvatma Bawraji that he had the foresight and the courage to engage and encourage women to play this kind of priestly role. And the fact that this community is flourishing here in Kitchener is a further testimony to the brilliance of his intuition.

A Canadian friend of mine in India, Pierre or Pyari, has learned fluent Hindi. He wanted to marry an Indian girl and went about it the Indian way: He had an arranged marriage. But first he had to go through many rituals, even taking the sacred thread himself in a classical upanayan ceremony. To marry a brahmin girl, he became a brahmin. But what is amazing again is the acceptance of the possibility of such a thing happening.

So the idea of caste consciousness is gradually falling away and the Hindu reformers’ interpretation of the Gita verse, chaturvarnyam maya srishtam guna-karma-vibhagashah (“I created the social system of four classes in accordance with their qualities and work”), finally being accepted.

Didiji said that this was a necessary step, and that it has not yet gone far enough, either where caste or gender is concerned, and I agree. The universal underpinnings of Hinduism are only realizable when this narrowmindedness drops away. The Gita tells us that the atma is transcendental to the body, and that the learned person (the pandit) sees all, whether a learned brahmin or an outcaste, a dog or a cow, as equal because of the spiritual spark that resides within them. We may discuss forever whether socially the difference is more important than the underlying unity, but if the goal is spiritual knowledge and transcendence, and all the individual qualities that go with them, then that is what we must cultivate and that is what we must teach our children.

And we must also teach that whatever one’s beginnings, through the powerful processes of spiritual life, of sadhana, we can all be transformed and become genuine spiritual leaders.

apavitraH pavitro vA sarvAvasthaM gato'pi vA
yaH smaret puNDarIkAkSaH sa bAhyAbhyantaraH shuchiH

Whether one is pure or impure, or in whatever state of life one finds oneself, by remember the lotus-eyed Lord, one is sanctified within and without.

Another thing about these developments is in the form that Hinduism is taking. Here in this temple are a Shiva linga, murtis of Shiva-Parvati, Durga, Sita-Rama, Radha-Krishna, Hanumanji, Ganeshji and Gurudeva. But the temple is named for Rama, and it is clear that Brahmarshi Vishvatma Bawra had a special place in his heart for Ramachandra and Ramacharit Manas. His own verse goes:

rom rom men Ram ki jab gunje runkar
tab jano tu bawra bayo Ram se pyar

When every pore of your body reverberates with Ram’s bija mantra, then you will know, O Bawra, that you have attained love for Ram.

Every Hindu knows that the genius of Hinduism lies in its realization of the one underlying truth, ekam sad vipra bahudha vadanti: “There is one Truth, but the realized souls describe it in many different ways.” And how many versions of this verse can be found throughout the scriptures.

Even the Bhagavata, the sacred text of the Krishna bhaktas, says

vadanti tattva-vidas tattvaM yaj jJAnam advayam
brahmeti paramAtmeti bhagavAn iti zabdyate

There is only one Undivided Consciousness, say the knowers of the ultimate truth, who is named either as Brahman, Paramatman or Bhagavan.
God may be all-pervading, in everyone and in everything, but to experience him, we need to find a doorway by which we can enter this world of universal vision. There are many such sadhanas, but all the scriptures tell us that the best way is bhakti. And bhakti is built on nishtha. Bhakti that is spread too thin loses its strength.

A woman who says, “I love ALL men,” or a man who says, “I love ALL women,” does not really know what love is, because one can only understand the meaning of love by entering deeply into the experience through one person. It is the same with guru and the same with the ishta devata. So, Bawraji has shown this and it is symbolized by your altar: We show respect to all the gods as symbols of the supreme truth, but the devotees’ nishtha should be to one form. The Padma Purana says,

harir eva sadArAdhyaH sarva-devezvarezvaraH
itare brahma-rudrAdyA nAvajJeyAH kadAcana ||
Hari is to be worshiped always, for he is the supreme overlord of all the gods. But the other gods like Brahma and Rudra should never be insulted or diminished.

And this applies of course to believers in other religions and other forms of the divinity. And this is one of the reasons Krishna says in the Gita that one should not disturb the minds of those who worship God for a lesser reason than pure love by telling them to change the external form of their religion. Rather they should be encouraged to continue on their path in the spirit of pure love.

So I like this verse by Bawraji,

rom rom men Ram ki jab gunje runkar
tab jano tu bawra bayo Ram se pyar

When every pore of your body reverberates with Ram’s bija mantra, then you will know, O Bawra, that you have attained love for Ram.

So Hinduism is spreading through the world with the Hindu diaspora, and as it does, it is taking so many forms. But the underlying genius of unity in diversity should always be remembered, even as we seek single-minded devotion in the particular path that has been revealed to us by God and guru.

And that brings me to one last thing I want to say. In the congregation here today, there are people from many parts of India. Bawraji himself was from Benares and Ayodhya in U.P., but most of the members of this congregation are Gujaratis or Punjabis. And there are many who are from the South and some from Bengal and other parts of India.

Globalization has meant that so many people from different parts of India have been thrown all over the world and thrown together to form communities that may resemble very little the ones they grew up in. Indeed, for many Hindu emigrants, the temple is a natural place to find some social life and community.

But what is interesting is that this community is not uniquely language or culture based. Naturally, everyone is looking for a community that is familiar—familiar food, familiar deities, familiar stories, etc. But many of the people who gather at a temple like this may not even have had any kind of spiritual impetus in their lives before they realized that they needed this kind of community. But this kind of familiar socializing is hardly the end goal of spiritual life.

Actually, every one of us is living out a great drama. A lila, if you will. It is like we are watching the drama of our own lives in a film or reading it in a book. Many people like to turn to the last page of a book to find out how it ends soon after they have started, but usually we can guess very early how a story will end: The hero vanquishes the evil enemies. The lovers are finally united and get married. How many times we have heard the Ramayana? We all know what happens, and yet we go on hearing it, again and again.

Similarly, I can tell all of you how your story ends. It is like the stories of the Buddha in the Jatakas: He took 500 births in which he performed pious works and austerities until finally he attain Nirvana under the bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya. You are all living so many adventures—many came from Africa after Idi Amin expelled the Indian community. The lives of emigrants are always challenging and heroic in so many ways. But the end of this story, just as it finds you here in this temple listening to Hari katha, is that you all find God. That is the last page of this novel.

This is our answer to the “theodicy” problem. There is a good English word I am sure many have never heard before. But it means trying to account for the evil in the world. God is sac-cid-ananda, but this world is full of suffering. The Buddha said the first noble truth or Arya-satya is duhkham: this world is a place of misery. Krishna also says in the Gita: janma-mritya-jarA-vyAdhi duHkha-doshAnudarshanam, “Wisdom means to recognize that this world is a place of suffering: birth, old age, disease and death.”

So, why is there suffering in this world if God is eternal, wise and blissful? And if God is One, and in his oneness is eternal, wise and blissful, then why does he say, "I am one, but I shall become many" (eko’ham, bahu syAm)?

Well, the answer is that in fact, all creation comes out of bliss; it remains in existence due to bliss, and it returns to bliss in its conclusion. We may look at the world as suffering, or we may look at it, through a vision of God as its underlying ground of being, as a place of joy. The truth is that since everything is a transformation of the Supreme Bliss, it is joy.

The secret is in the story. We are all on the path to God (mama vartmAnuvartante manuSyAH pArtha sarvashaH), and we will all return to God. That is the last page of the book, and every page of life that we go through, every experience, every challenge, every up and every down, is meant to carry us forward to that ultimate conclusion. And, the added secret of this story is, in fact, that is goes on eternally and without any end, for as we experience the love of God and as we learn the art of loving God, the story become everlastingly blissful in ever newer and newer ways.

Though many acharyas have said this same thing, Shankaracharya briefly recounts in his commentaries to the Upanishads the story of a prince, who in his childhood was separated from his family and brought up by poor farmers. He grows up and is brought up by them, and neither he nor they know his true identity. Only later, when the king’s ministers recognize him and tell him the truth—even though he first refuses to believe—does he find out who he really is.

So, this is our story, too. All of you, all of us, will one day know who we are and will be reunited with our eternal lover, God. But the interesting part is really the story as it unfolds. Like a real novel, turning to the last page does not really add all that much to the fun of reading the book.

So, I ask you to think about this: Think about your life as a journey in which you return to your true identity as a servant of God, and enjoy the manifestations of God’s mercy and revelation as they come to you bit by bit. Relish the path and you will understand what is meant by AnandAd imAni bhUtAni jAyante.