Saturday, August 14, 2010

The sloth stirs

It really is time to get these dormant blogs shaking again. Over the past few months I have not been doing much original writing. This site was meant to be a place where I could talk about interesting people I met. And its inactivity may make it look like I haven't been meeting anyone.

Well, I have been in SRSG most of the time, and this is a slow season for visitors. Even so, I could have written about a young man who stayed for two weeks, a member of the world championship Frisbee team from Canada... Or a number of other interesting folks, some of whom I might still speak in the near future. In particular the astrologer Pawan Misra of Noida.

I had a few translation jobs that preoccupied me, and it would have been quite possible to comment publicly on that work. In fact, two different projects were directly connected with Ishopanishad, and I lectured on the Ishopanishad for a month at Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama. There was definitely material that would have been of interest to my readers in that and now I am rather sorry that I did not take the trouble to publish my notes. Perhaps we can do it later. (He said with a sigh.)

One of the reasons I did not of course is that this blog has a somewhat specialized purpose, unclear as that may seem, and I would like to stick to that, rather than enter into an arcane discussion of the meaning of an ancient Upanishad. Though, since part of my work involved reading A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami's totally idiosyncratic interpretation of that work, it might have been worth looking at. Astu.

We are not out of the woods, yet, however. Currently I am working on editing Swami Veda Bharati's original first volume of the Yoga Sutra, which is a pretty solid, though somewhat formidable, piece of scholarship. Of the four padas of YS, the first seems to be the most important, and I will try to share some of the material as it becomes specifically relevant to my interests.

Activity in Vrindavan 

I am here in Vrindavan, and as I remarked the other day, I lost my computer with a sufficient amount of data lost to be worthy of lamentation. My camera also went, which is also something of a disaster as I was taking a lot of pictures, especially of Vrindavan. Luckily I posted some before it happened (Vrindavan-Mathura, August 2010).But of course much more would have already been in the camera when it parted. And it will likely be some time before I can replace it.

My principal purpose in being in Vrindavan is to get the Vrindavan Today news site working. Up until now, I have been preparing the ground as it were, but the loss of the computer was a big setback... at least of a couple of days. The basic idea of the website is this:

Vrindavan is in a bit of a crisis. The increased prosperity in the Delhi regiion, which extends as far as Agra, means a huge increase in the number of motor vehicles and traffic to Vrindavan. In one sense, it is good, as it means more wealth for the town and its people. But the materialistic approach to economic growth, if left unchecked, can be a cancer and may indeed destroy the essence of this spiritual town.

I won't go into detail here, but the flyover that was to be constructed over the Yamuna, circling around Keshi Ghat, is a perfect example of wrongheaded thinking. We are still not entirely out of the woods on that one, as the Parikrama Marg, originally the spontaneous creation of pilgrims honoring the holy dham by meditatively circumambulating it, is being turned into a ring road. But the negative impact of all these projects is not understood, either by the government or by the local residents. And those who do understand are scattered and disorganized.

In fact, it is sad to say, but the Vrindavan community of temple owners, ashrams and spiritual organizations, has literally no central institution of any kind to deal with these kinds of problems. No global forum to discuss and develop a common vision for the town and to advocate for it yet exists. The BVHA (Braja Vrindavan Heritage Alliance) is moving forward in this direction, at a snail's pace, but something IS happening. The BVHA has already had several successes, especially with Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in court regarding stopping the flyover and the cutting of trees in the road-widening activity, as well as the projected greening of Kishor Van.

At Radha Damodar temple, BVHA meeting on August 10, 2010. Nirmal Chandra Goswami to my right, Jagannath Poddar to my left.
The problems in creating such a forum are many. The main one is that most people are concerned with their own particular field of activity and cannot be stirred to projects that involve others. The concept of civic awareness is still not fully developed. There are historical reasons for this, but it is a constant battle in all societies: the forces of individual interest are always pitted against community interest, and without proper organization community interests can be easily steamrollers by the politically and financially powerful.

Another important thing is to have balance and not allow the domination of any one group. The BVHA cannot become any one person or group's show, thereby alienating other players. We have already had trouble with this issue at this stage, since we are still few and some, like Shrivatsa Goswami, Paramadvaiti Maharaj and Jagannath Poddar, have shown leadership, and each of them has his own base, interests and sphere of influence. This means proceeding with caution.

At any rate, the Vrindavan Today project has the purpose of making Vrindavan and Braj current events -- spiritual, cultural, and developmental -- available to the world on the net and creating common avenues of activism. This is another of the many ways I have been keeping busy while neglecting this site over the past several months.


I am staying at the Jiva Institute while in Vrindavan. Jiva is close enough to Iskcon that the magnetic attraction of that place has called me to it on a couple of occasions now. It is either the number one or number two (after Banke Bihari) attraction in Vrindavan. Now is the Jhulan season, which is one of the busiest times of the year in Braj and thousands of people go through the temple every single day.

But I have to confess that Iskcon's success is not an accident and from the looks of it has the potential to grow tremendously in the future. I do not think there is anything like it, perhaps in the entire world. There must be at least 100 young Indian men, who are committed to the brahmachari life. They follow a rather gruelling communal schedule when compared to most other ashrams--from mangal arati at 4 to breakfast at 9 before starting a regular day of seva. And these young men, though from a wide range of backgrounds, include a large number of modern, urban, educated individuals. Some very highly qualified. Certainly, the Iskcon style of kirtan and dancing etc. are something quite unique in Indian religious life. What to speak of the deity worship, which has clearly had a huge impact on modern Indian temple culture already.

Religious art is another area where Iskcon's influence has been huge, especially here in Vrindavan, where almost everyone steals Iskcon artists' work for their own billboards, books and posters.

I heard several classes at Iskcon in both English and Hindi and the quality of discourse, though entirely traditional, is at a much higher standard than it has been in the past. A wide number of authors are writing and publishing and being sold, both at the Iskcon temple and in town, indicating that the intellectual activity of the society is animated and febrile. This augurs well for the future. As Iskcon puts the structural problems of the past fully behind it, becomes increasingly self-confident, it seems inevitable that a certain degree of intellectual freedom will follow. It may be just as possible that it will follow a Roman Catholic model, but the liberal democratic background of the Western backbone of Iskcon, its lack of strong centralization, and the centrifugal forces of the guru institution will make such intellectual freedom inevitable.

Of course, in all this, it is hard not to be honest and admit that I am also an "Iskcon intellectual." I used to joke that I am to Iskcon as yogurt is to milk. It has fundamentally altered and can never go back to what it was. Nevertheless, its influence on my life is also fundamental, as much as yogurt is still milk. We could go on with the permutations and combinations of the entire Indian tradition, of which Iskcon is just another chapter, but my sources are there and my thought develops out of it. And just as Iskcon's Western influences, though not always apparent in its words, are nevertheless a major part of its ethos, its discipline and institutional force, those influences are a part of what I also bring to the evolution of Vaishnava thought.

To summarize: Iskcon is a vibrant and energetic organization. Vaishnava culture throughout India and especially in Vrindavan is benefiting from its energy. In one way of the other, it is at the center of developments in the Vaishnava world. This is a fact as much for me as it is for others, whether they like it or not.


A couple of other things came out of my last couple of days of computer difficulty. One is that though a few people responded to my requests for help in finding a replacement for my lost machine, in general, the response was feeble. This is not a lament, but a recognition that the work I have done has not made much of an impression. At least, despite the nearly 5000 people who joined the Save Yamuna Save Vrndavan facebook site, only two or three saw fit to even sympathize with the situation, what to speak of offering help. Of course, several people did come forth, but let's be honest, not many.

On the other hand, I became aware of the relative notoriety of my Jagat blog. On the one hand, the Prem Prayojan Hindi newsblog and the BVHAlliance blogspot have not yet hit the radar, which is a bit of a shame, and the Gaudiya Grantha Mandir, which has been in even greater doldrums than "Jagat," is still attracting a certain number of visits and Google searches. However, "Jagat" attracts quite a few more visitors than any of them. This was something of a surprise to me.

I have never bothered to install hit counters or get analytics installed. Maybe it is time.

So, even though there is not much feedback here at the present moment, it is food for thought, in terms of where my energies should be devoted and the necessity of creating a personal website that structures the essentials of my philosophy and practice and presents it in a digestible way.

One thing B.V. Madhava, the Iskcon sannyasi who gave Bhagavatam class yesterday said that struck me was the 20-80 rule. You accomplish 80% of everything you do in 20% of the time. As you grow older, your capacities diminish, so you have to concentrate on the 20% of important stuff and cut back on the rest. Whatever the truth of that statement, it certainly is true that my time is running out. Let us say that I am in the last quarter of my life and I have not yet done, basically, anything of substance.

So let's see if the local Maharani will help out and give me the concentration and energy to do everything that [I think] she wants of me.

Radhe Radhe!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Bad News: Computer has been lost!

Dear friends,

On the way back from Vrinda Kunj, my computer was lost. Not sure how it happened, but it is something of a disaster considering that I use the computer so much for so many things. And of course, there was a lot not backed up...

The computer has become so essential to my life that it is almost like a second self, or at least a second mind or brain. A lot of services will be affected, in particular the work on the Braj Vrindavan Heritage Alliance and Prema Prayojan blogs.

So I am sending out an appeal to all those friends who over the years have enjoyed or benefited from my websites like Gaudiya Grantha Mandir, or from writings in blogs like Jagat, or from my translations, to donate for a new computer.

I am sorry I have to do this, but I am afraid I have no other resources, so I am humbly asking for your assistance.

Please write to jankbrz {at} yahoo dot com.


Jagadananda Das.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Surprise Visit from Karan Singh

Dr. Karan Singh is one of the most ubiquitous politicians in India. He was just recently in Vrindavan opening the Vaishno Devi temple there. Yesterday he was at Paramarth Niketan offering arati to the Ganga and today he decided to drop in on his way back to Delhi.

The ashram is pretty thin in terms of representation. If anything, that is a serious problem with the ashram itself. Swami Veda left yesterday and now, suddenly, a sannyasi from South India named Devatmananda Swami, who has been here on a visit for two days, and I are the spiritual leadership of the ashram?

The three SUV cavalcade came rolling in the requisite half an hour late. Karan Singh stepped out, wearing his trademark navy blue shirt and Congress cap. Though he has been around forever, I was a bit surprised to see him show difficulty walking, though no one had to come to his aid. On the other hand, his face seemed bright and younger than his age and his brain and speech are obviously sharp and clear.

Harshananda and a few Gurukula brahmacharis came and chanted some Vedic mantras of greeting, which Singh himself joined in chanting; he was given garland and tilak. We were prepared to show him around the ashram, but his disability prevented him and we came and sat down in the Mandala Office.

Dr. Singh gave most attention to the Swamiji, but on being told that I was the Sanskrit teacher, turned his attention to me. He asked me what I was teaching and I told him the Ishopanishad. With that, he immediately began to speak of his love for the Upanishads. He said that he felt that there are four yogas--jnana, bhakti, karma and raja. His jnana-yoga is in the Upanishads, his bhakti is for Shiva; his karma is in the various kinds of seva to which he has dedicated his life, and raja yoga, "though I am weakest in this" is what holds the others together.

"If someone exclusively practices one or the other, he may in some rare instances be able to achieve perfection, but for an ordinary person who wants to live a balanced life, all are necessary." I concurred.

And so we turned to a discussion of the Upanishads. He is a learned man who has written a translation and commentary on the Mundaka Upanishad, and a raja besides -- enough said. Because of reading and preparing a course on Ishopanishad and had formed an opinion on the question, I asked him what he though jugupsate meant in verse 6. He gave a standard answer and we quickly moved on to other things.

He correctly said that the Ishopanishad is difficult because of all the oppositional and apparently contradictory statements in verses 9-14. I asked him what he thought was meant by vidyā and avidyā, sambhüti and asambhüti, and he said parā vidyā and aparā vidyā without saying what it really meant. I wasn't quite satisfied, but we were just amusing ourselves. I took the Vaishnava position and actually quoted Bhaktivedanta Swami on his understanding of these verses.

So he turned to bhakti and chanted a nice sragdhara verse in praise of Shiva. And talked about the several temples to Nataraj Shiva he has built. I said, "One thing that Shiva and Krishna really have in common is that they both love to dance." And he said, "Only thing is, Shiva dances alone while Krishna dances with the gopis."

Then, for my benefit, he quoted this famous verse from Mukunda Mala, which he said he always uses to conclude his lecture on the Bhagavad-gita.

kṛṣṇa tvadīya-pada-paṅkaja-pañjarāntam
adyaiva me viśatu mānasa-rāja-haṁsaḥ |
prāṇa-prayāṇa-samaye kapha-vāta-pittaiḥ
kaṇṭhāvarodhana-vidhau smaraṇaṁ kutas te ||

O Krishna! Let the swan of my mind dive into the cage made by the stems of your lotus feet on this very day, for when the time comes for me to give up my life airs, my throat will be choked by the disruption of mucus, wind and bile, and then it will be impossible for me to remember you. (Mukunda Mālā, 33)

At the last moment after this group photo, I spontaneously said, "Radhe Shyam!" But then, conscious of his presence, I said, "Jai Nataraj!" and he gave me a big smile.

And off went the cavalcade.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Say Yes Now

Last night we had a farewell party for Jean White at the Raman Gardens in Tapovan. The oddly shaped buildings are clustered along the side of a steep hill just above the Ganga, with a path winding through them. I immediately thought of Paramadvaiti Maharaj and his "truly" fetish when I saw a couple of small, conically shaped huts. Most of the buildings have been constructed with the flat shale that is taken from the local ground itself, in the way that traditional village huts would have been built.

Towards the bottom of the property is a round deck with built in concrete and mosaic tile tables. This is where we sat down. We had to order in the rather comfortable coffee shop which resonated for me with long gone hippie days, but decided to eat by candlelight on the deck in the fresh evening air.

Deva Dwabha, the owner of the complex, was sitting at the next table, and Nalini rather boldly invited her to sit with us and talk to us about the Raman's Garden project, and talk to us she did.

Much information about her life and this project can be found on her website, so what follows is simply a summary of what I can remember from this conversation, in which several of us asked questions, but where Deva Dwabha kept us enthralled with her narration.

Though she has another name, Prabhavati, she introduced herself as Deva Dwabha. The name, meaning "divine chaos," was given to her by Osho, from whom she received her introduction to India and spiritual life. She spent more than 18 years with him, a lot of it at the Pune ashram, much of it traveling and teaching meditation in the Osho method around the world. After Osho left the world, she spent time traveling in India and meeting with other sadhus until she was told by one to do a year's silence in a cave by the Ganga. This was in a place not far from the current Raman's Gardens.

Her contact with the local people and the sight of their difficulties inspired her, with the help of some NGOs, to set up the orphanage and school in 1998. The need is so acute, she said, that she accepts only those children who are in imminent danger of death and have absolutely no social safety net whatsoever. Even so, the hostel now houses over 60 children. In a most matter of fact way, she told us that one of the sweet Nepali teenage girls who had served our meal had been saved from a white slave trafficking ring when she was nine years old.

Apparently a major source of financing for the Maoist rebellion in Nepal was the kidnapping and selling of young girls into India, where there is apparently an insatiable market. In particular, she told us, that the Nepali girls are in big demand in Mumbai, where thousands of wealthy Arabic tourists come every year to wait out the hot season. Deva Dwabha did not spare us her familiarity with the seamier side of Indian life.

She said that the Indian economic miracle is built on the back of what is almost slave labor. That is the dirty secret of the current building boom. In Rishikesh also, local workers are supplanted by imported labor from Bihar, which is much cheaper. The only problem is that once a project is completed, the workers are left to fend for themselves, with little work or opportunity available to them. Moreover, many of the men are sadly irresponsible with their paltry earnings, drinking and gambling it away and leaving their families destitute. All this contributes to the increasingly difficult social conditions that she sees on a daily basis. And it is not, I imagine, much different from what is going on in Vrindavan.

At the same time, every accomplishment is the result of a determined fight, and without expectation of any sympathetic help from local government or industry. Just next to the school is a new hotel of several stories, built, she says, on ashram land that was purchased illegally after bribes had arranged for corrupt bureaucrats to adjust property lines. No one should think that doing good will be rewarded by sympathetic benefactors if it conflicts with their interests.

Trying to get the students, who are all untouchable, through to higher levels of education is another great challenge. She has not been able to get permission to build a high school, despite many efforts. Part of the reason, she suspects, is that Indian society is in fact reluctant to give equal opportunities to outcaste children, as this would disrupt the kind of slave or indentured labor economy that is currently dominant.

She also lamented that students are taught to cheat and that it is even encouraged in the schools. The ashram students who have to go to public schools after finishing junior high there find themselves at a disadvantage for their honesty--and also their inability or unwillingness to pay bribes, what to speak of their caste. Nevertheless she proudly pointed to several successes, and some students from the hostel will be starting studies towards medical degrees at HIHT this year.

Since we came from Swami Rama Sadhaka Gram, she told us of her admiration and appreciation of Swami Rama, who had helped her a great deal in the beginnings of the project. She told us how she met him 16 years ago when she was first starting her own activity in Rishikesh.

A mistry named Rama got involved with some village thugs involved in alcohol and gambling and they put a stick of dynamite in his hand, blew off most of his arm, an eye, an ear. They dragged him into the forest and dumped him there to bleed to death, then went and told his wife that he had run away. She did not believe them and went into the woods looking for her husband. When she found him she had to carry him as he bled to the road four kilometers away. I am not exactly sure how Prabhavati got into the picture, but she arranged for Rama to be taken to HIHT.

Dynamite offenses are criminal in India, and hospitals cannot treat anyone unless the police are informed and a FRI has been filed. In view of this, Swami Rama was awakened. By now, Rama was in a coma and in urgent need of care. Swami Rama gave the order to proceed despite the possibility of problems from the law enforcement officials, and called the best surgeons available. The man's arm was amputated and the ear and eye were lost, but his life was saved. He still works there at Raman Gardens as a security guard.

After than, Swami Rama helped her to get the orphanage started and supported the project in many ways. She knew him from HIHT, which continues to treat the children from the orphanage and school for free, even though in many ways the policies there have changed from Swami Rama's time.

Her first question about SRSG, by the way, was "Besides yoga and meditation, what seva is done there?" Because, "Swami Rama was all about seva."

With regards to that question of seva. There is something called the andha-pangu nyaya, which means "the logic of the blind and lame men." Bhaktivedanta Swami would say the West was blind and India lame. That may be an oversimplification, but there is some truth to it, at least where we students of yoga and Indian spirituality are concerned.

The success of yoga movements in the West is because some there, despite having all facility for material enjoyment, are still looking for and indeed are in a position to seek out and devote themselves to the goals of spiritual development.

It is a cliché that you cannot preach to a hungry man without first giving him food. Even now, some parts of the rising middle class in India are beginning to show increasing signs of interest in spriituality as their material anxieties subside. But in general, material anxieties have been exacerbated by the current mad rush to prosperity, with the result that the entire moral fabric of Indian society is under great stress. And projects like Raman Gardens or Rupa Raghunath's project in Vrindavan are tremendously important in redressing the balance and creating an equitable and just society.

These are things that will actually become more and more important to us as we become free from that last stress--the stress for our individual salvation or emancipation.

The fact is that the East-West exchange is one in which there is a most vital, mutual service. If we are unable to serve seekers by providing guidance in the spiritual culture of sadhana, any other service we do will ultimately lose its connection to the sacred and then, whatever its external value, be ultimately unsatisfying and directionless.

On the other hand, spirituality divorced from service to the most needy, who are deprived of all opportunities to even remotely experience the bliss of contemplation, is a sad failure in love, the true fruit of all spiritual practice.

Radhe Radhe!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Quaroya and Heupdiakona, Rishikesh

An interesting experience today. There is a seminary of Saint Thomas Christians (Syrian Malabar Nasrani) here in Rishikesh. The name of their ashram is Samanvaya Vidya Dham which indicates a bit about their approach. You can get an idea of the purpose of this institution by scrolling down to page 74 of this document.

They invited Swami Veda and his disciples to their church near Laxman Jhula to participate in a mass which initiated 17 young men into the minor orders of the priesthood, namely lectorate and subdeaconate. These students have spent the last year in Rishikesh and they will be working in North India. Though they are all Keralans, they speak fluent English and Hindi. In fact, they all look extremely sattvik and they are trained to a very high educational level. If Hindu sannyasis were put through the same kind of training requirements that this sect puts its priests through, it would be of greatest benefit to everyone, both within Hinduism and without.

The priest who invited us, Davis Varayilan CMI, started his introductory discourse by saying that the police had visited the ashram a few days before asking about their conversion activities. There is a lot of sensitivity about that around here obviously, and they are feeling the heat. They had to explain that St.Thomas came to India in 52 AD, so their church is nothing new in this country. Most, of course, think of the Christian church in relationship to the aggressive missionary tactics used by American Protestant churches.

Fr. Varayilan said that the position of the Thomian Catholics is "Indian in culture, Christian in faith, and Oriental in its rites." But as I heard in the JNU conference last week, with the coming of the Catholics into India, especially in the 18th century, the Keralan Christians became more and more closely aligned with Roman Catholicism and the mass we saw today was a classic post-Vatican II celebration, only transposed into Hindi, with the hymns, etc., sung in North Indian bhajan style. It was a bit interesting to hear the Sanctus or Agnus Dei presented in that way, but on the whole, a very nice adaptation.

In fact, Fr. Varayilan said that the purpose of having the seminary in Rishikesh was to compensate a bit for the overly European influence and to reconnect with the Indian roots of the religion. It was meant to familiarize the seminarians with Hindu religious practices, yoga and meditation, and it was precisely for this reason that the group was invited to SRSG for a week last year, going through a meditation retreat and getting classes from Swami Veda Bharati.

On the ceiling of the church, they had six symbols of the major Indian religions: Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism (if I got them right). This is a clear indication of the direction that an "Indian" Christianity would take, a rather more salutary approach.

Interestingly, they specifically, as Keralans, spoke of themselves as descendants of Shankaracharya.

Listening to the mass, which concluded with a rousing Jai Jagadish Hare arati, I was wondering about the relation of form to content. At any rate, it is very welcome to see a Christian group so warmly embracing Hindu-style pluralism. Indeed, when speaking of the experience at SRSG, one of the priests recited the old adage, "Religion divides and spiritualism unites."

I hesitated a moment before taking communion (parama-prasada, but showing solidarity with the cause of interfaith brotherhood, I did so. I usually felt the same kind of hesitation when at church during my son's career as a choirist, perhaps as a result of the childhood training that there was no communion without confession. You have to be in a state of grace. But left to my own subjectivity, I would never be in a state of grace, so I just went ahead.

Strange feeling. I guess that all that interfaith conferencing in Patiala had its effect.

Paramadvaiti Maharaja visits SRSG

Paramadvaiti Swami, founding father of the Vaishnava Vrinda Mission came to visit SRSG yesterday. He had come to the Kumbha Mela and wanted to visit Swami Veda.

You can find his biography on the Vrinda website. He has so many interesting projects going on around the world, of which I will only mention two: the World Vaishnava Association, and the Eco Truly Ashram in Peru. A five minute video in Spanish here.

He is a humanitarian bursting with ideas and nearly always tries to get them transposed into reality. He said to me, "I consider it my job to give work to others." So literally thousands of people are engaging in these projects, mostly in South America, but also in Europe and India. There are several hundred Vrinda Mission centers around the world. And too many websites to list here, but if you know Spanish, you will find surfing through all those given above interesting.

He came with a group of 15 devotees, mostly a group from Colombia that was touring India.

Swamiji singing on his patented ukelele in the meditation hall. I think the devotees here would have gladly listened to him for an hour. He surprised me as I did not know he was that good.

He spoke on spiritual education in the modern materialistic world, in accordance with his latest project, the Oida therapy program, which he freely admits is related to the 12-step AA project, but is intended to cultivate faith and a sense of meaning in life.

Afterwards we went up and had a very enjoyable dinner conversation with Swami Veda. Here is the de rigueur group photo.

Radhe Radhe.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Vijaya Ramaswamy and Sethu Ramaswamy

I met Vijaya Ramaswamy, professor of history at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) a couple of months ago, through Joseph O'Connell. She asked me to present a paper at a conference on devotion and dissent in Indian history. So that is where I was last week, March 11-13.

She was very hospitable and I especially enjoyed meeting her mother, Sethu, and so I thought I would just write a short blog about them.

Vijaya's mother, Sethu Ramaswamy, seen here with her nine-year-old grandson, Vijay Krishna, is a pretty amazing woman. She wrote a memoir called Bride at Ten, Mother at Fifteen which I just finished reading this morning.

What I like about Sethu Ramaswamy is her energy. At the age of 86, she has just published her third book in the last ten years, on the life of Raman Maharshi. In fact, she got her M.A. in history when she was 80.

She was born into an elite Tamil brahmin family with royal connections in the Travancore kingdom, spent the first part of her life in Ceylon, then in Trivandrum and finally the major part of it after marriage in Delhi. Despite being a member of the privileged elite, education was not a part of a woman’s destiny in those times, and when she was married at the age of ten, her formal schooling was stopped. Her memoir, though I wish at times that it were a little more detailed, gives a fair account of the changing face of India in the 20th century, both the good and the bad, particularly where attitudes to women, etc., were concerned.

One interesting anecdote, which she told me in person, was that at one point, she decided to open a bank account to deposit the money that came from selling all the newspapers that accumulated in their house. Her husband was a journalist and received six different papers each day. When he found out that his wife had opened a bank account, he was furious and made her close it immediately.

The turning point comes when, upon reading Pearl Buck’s Pavilion of Women at the age of 40, she decided to strike out independently. She stood up on her birthday and announced to her husband and six daughters that she had decided to take control of her own life. And it was then that she began her education in earnest, even while she continued to carry out her responsibilities as a wife and mother.

Vijaya Ramaswamy has also written several books of a very high standard of scholarship. As her mother writes, “Vijaya, my youngest, is the scholar of the family. Apart from being a university teacher, she has authored three books. Though by profession a historian, she has, because of her deep religious faith, done her research on spiritual movements, especially women saints. She is also into Women’s Studies. Her marriage to Krishnan, who like my husband is a freelance journalist and research consultant, has given me the greatest happiness in my life.” There is, a big story behind that, as they were married when she was 44, and they still were able to have this marvelous son.

Vijaya’s book on south Indian women saints, Walking Naked, is an impressive piece of scholarship with a great deal of analysis about the expectations of women in society and the renunciation of these roles by these brave sadhvis.

Her book is a delight to read. She is a good story teller, but the real value of her narration lies in the fact that she is sharing a remarkable personal insight into the subject, and not simply a scholarly one. It reminds me of Karen Armstrong's style in The Case for God, simultaneously a scholarly and devotional approach, which is somewhat controversial in academic circles, in that she does not simply accept the kind of feminist critique that sees religion itself as a patriarchal institution, without admitting of a true transcendence beyond gender.

In almost every one of Vijaya's observations I found confirmation of my own view that women's saintliness has always been coupled with dissent, a protest against prevalent gender roles. Like Elizabeth Abbott in A History of Celibacy, she shows that the female experience of spirituality is different from that of men, and that this is directly related to their differing attitudes to and experiences of gender roles and sexuality.

This is a picture of me talking to her. She was very busy organizing the conference and playing the host. I will try to give a short summary of the papers and presenters, if I get a chance. That is a big job and doubtful. I will publish my own paper on the other blog.

Vijaya Ramaswamy with her husband Krishnan.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Conference at Panjabi University, Patiala

As already intimated on the Jagat blog, I have been in Patiala at the Punjabi University for the past few days, participating in a conference. Here are a few pictures of the place and the participants.

Punjabi University has a beautiful modern campus, with well-laid out roads, many parks and gardens, including a botanical garden. I did not include many of my pictures of the campus as they do not show much that is really unique, but this photo of the Guru Gobind Singh research library gives a general impression of the way that it has been designed. This library has 40,000 books on religion and philosophy and houses the Encyclopedia of Sikhism project, which is headed by Prof. Jodh Singh. This is the department that hosted the conference, along with Swami Veda's Institute of Meditation and Interfaith Studies.

Since I represented one of the hosting organizations, I got top billing! I did not realize it until I saw this on one of my walks around the campus. If you are interested in what I had to say, look here and here.

I don't have photos of everyone who participated. This photo shows, left to right, Sirajul Islam, professor of philosophy and Sufism at Rabindra Bharati University, Shantiniketan. I had the fortune of meeting him at the Kolkata conference a couple of months ago, so it was a bit of a surprise to meet him again.

To his right is Balkar Singh, head of department for Sri Guru Granth Sahib Studies, who was president of the last session in Punjabi. I could not understand him except for the English and Hindi words he used, but like many of the senior Sikh scholars, he showed a great deal of gravitas and learning, equally adept in using Western and Eastern concepts.

Kazi Nurul Islam is the head of one of the most liberal educational institutes in Bangladesh, the Department of World Religions and Culture at Dhaka University. This is the only institution teaching comparative religion in Bangladesh, he told me. Interestingly, my old friend and mentor Joseph O'Connell from the University of Toronto has been affiliated with this department for several years, and from what I gather is making an incredibly valuable contribution to the school, and by extension, to Bangladesh. He has been participating there more actively since his retirement at UofT. Prof. Islam has a Ph.D. in Vedanta from Benares Hindu University, which is where he first met Jodh Singh, which shows a bit how these things work.

After me, there is Gurnam Singh Sanghera, who lives in Burnaby, B.C. Missed the winter Olympics to come to this, I guess. He spoke on "Religion for Peace, a Sikh Perspective." Unfortunately, he tried to condense too much into a short time frame and so many of his very interesting ideas on the causes of bigotry, etc., were not developed.

Dr. D.N. Gangadhar from the Philosophy and Religions Department of BHU is a scholar of philosophy and has done a lot of work on Radhakrishnan, specifically.

Last is Hardev Singh from Jammu University. He spoke in Punjabi, so I did not fully understand it, but we had some good talks together.

This is D.A. Gangadhar with Paramvir Singh, one of our hosts. He is a contributor to the Encyclopedia of Sikhism and had just come out with a book, Sri Guru Granth Sahib: Chintan ate Vichara-dhara.

Dr. Bhuvan Chandel, Secretary of the Center for Studies in Civilization, Science and Culture, New Delhi. She gave the keynote address, mostly speaking on Islamic philosophy.

Dr. Charanjit Kaur, from Bhopal, who spoke on the essence of all religions, and Dr. Deepali Bhanot. Dr. Bhanot is a Sanskrit professor at Delhi University, but is an activist with wide interests, working with the Interfaith Coalition for Peace, and against child sexual exploitation, and in women's issues. Moreover, she has been involved for some time with Unifem in helping widows in the Braj area, helping to open a successful hostel for them there in recent years. See Spirituality, Poverty, Charity Bring Widows to Vrindavan. She is contributor to a recent volume, Gender Concerns in South Asia (University of Delhi, 2008)

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Fatihgarh Gurudwar

On the last day of the conference, we went to Fatehgarh Sahib, a major pilgrimage center for Sikhs about 35 kilometers from Patiala.

Once again, I am only showing a few photos, but let it be said that this a very beautifully maintained house of worship.

This photo is taking in the basement of the building. This gurudwara commemorates the assassination of Guru Gobind Singh's two young sons who were walled in alive while being told to convert to Islam or die. On either side of the sanctum sanctorum one can see there is akhanda path of Guru Granth Sahib. In the entire complex, there are a total of six such constant readings of the Sikh holy book. There was also a very mellow kirtan going on upstairs, with the names of Govinda and Gopal being sung. Sikhs don't think of Govinda and Gopala quite in the way we do, but it is nice to hear them sing these names.

This is the altar on the main floor of the building. Spotless white marble and the entire building and grounds are kept impeccably clean.

I was wondering whether I was allowed to be taking photographs--a lot of places don't like it so much--but as I was wondering, the manager of the Gurudwara pointed to the ornately decorated ceiling and told me to take a picture of it. "Gold," he said.

Here is an iconographical poster being sold. Bhai Satiram Ji. I don't know the story, but clearly arising from the the Muslim-Sikh wars period.

Another image of Sikh martyrdom. This one says Bhai Mani Singh Ji. Looks like he is about to lose a hand or a finger.

This is a martyr from more recent days. This is Jarnail Singh Bhindrenwale. He died in 1984, which was a very eventful year for Sikhs--the Air India bombing, the attack on the Golden Temple and the assassination of Indira Gandhi, followed by the pogroms in Delhi, when Sikhs were massacred by angry Hindus. It seems that the resentments that led to the Khalistan demands are still simmering, and that was the elephant in the room at the Interfaith Dialogue and Peace conference. I talked to one of the participants about it in the train on the way to Delhi and he immediately became very passionate. "How can you forget this history?" he asked.

This colorful gentleman posed for us quite happily. This is not a separate subgroup of Sikhism, but the traditional warrior dress. I only saw elderly men in this garb, though. My Sikh friend said, in defense of Bhindrenwale, that people do not understand how weapons can be considered sacred and this is at least part of the source of the problem...

This is our group (left to right) Dr. Jaspreet Kaur Sandhu, Prof. D.A. Gangadhar, Prof. Kazi Nurul Islam, Dr. Jagat Ram Bhattacharyya, Dr. Deepali Bhanot, Prof. Jodh Singh, Dr. Hardev Singh. The orange siropas were given as a gesture of greeting by the head of the gurudwara, Amrit Singh.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A few more Haridwar pictures

One of the things that I liked in Haridwar are the buildings. There are many graceful homes, ashrams and temples. I did not take many photos of these, unfortunately, and so the two that I have posted are rather a poor sample.

This building is freshly painted for the Kumbha, but I like that traditional balcony. The streets themselves are nicely paved and quite clean, at least in this part of town, which is close to the railroad station and therefore has most of the hotels. But near the Ganga there are many, many ashrams. Maybe next time. As I already said, my battery died and I was unable to go on taking pictures.

The picture above is of a dharma shala (a low-cost hotel for pilgrims) on the main street going by the railway station.

Iskcon has a big pandal right near the main bridge crossing the Ganga to the tent city. They are sending out this ox-cart with a dozen or so brahmacharis to do kirtan through the town. This is just next to the above building.

There are police encampments all over the place. Various different army and reserve police forces are present ensuring the safety of the event. This particular encampment is nicely arranged with even lions at the gate. There is a kind of rock garden at the entrance also holding the flag, etc.

I was joking that the police and soldiers were acting just like sadhus--they are living in tents without women, decorating their camps with the insignia of their platoons and so on. I really got a laugh the next day when I heard one soldier greet another with the expression, namo narayana, which is the standard sannyasi greeting.

A closeup of that lion.

Everyone is getting into the act. Near the new two storey parking lot on the far side of the highway and at the edge of one of the tent cities, I saw these poor children carrying stones. They were building a kind of shrine with a sadhu picture they had found. There are several tent cities for beggers and sweepers as well. This locale is actually a shit-field.

A nice newer part of town, which has been built up since the 50's is the area surrounding the Sapta Rishi Ashram. I did not catch the name of the ashram where these figures of the Pandavas and Draupadi on their way to the Himalayas were housed, but I thought it worth photographing. The dog, as you Mahabharata fiends may recall, was actually Indra.

Some baby donkeys... Even donkeys are cute when they are very young.

This 50-foot Shiva statue standing by the Ganga is one of the tourist attractions of Haridwar. There is a nice walk from here that takes you to Harki Pauri. They are currently painting it in preparation for the main events of the Kumbha which appear to be taking place in March.

I just had to include this underwear model. Some of those Indian mannequins really get to me.

Radhe Radhe!!

Haridwar Sadhu Posters

The Kumbha Mela is really a sadhu convention. And that means lots of advertising. Haridwar is cluttered with hundreds of billboards advertising the coming of various sadhus and sannyasis, whose large pandal tents are dotting the tent city that is the Kumbha Mela. I started to photograph as many of the signs as I could, much in the way that a 10-year-old collects bubble gum cards, trying to get a full set. Unfortunately my battery died and I had no recharger with me.

Here are some of the highlights.

(1) This is a poster for Sri Panchadasa Nam Juna Akhara. Haridwar has a number of Akharas, which are maths or ashrams, or central seats for different sampradayas of sannyasis. I am not quite sure of the relationship of these lineages to the Shankara dasanamis. I talked briefly to one sadhu in the tent city and he explained that this specific line was descended from Dattatreya, the avadhut mentioned in the 11th canto of the Bhagavatam.

The akharas award the title of Mahamandaleshwar, as can be seen on this poster. The Juna Akhara sannyasis all seem to have the Giri title, as with Devananda Giri on the right here.

(2) This poster was in the tent city in the Juna Akhara section, but he does not state that affiliation. Mahamandaleshwar Swami Viyogananda Saraswati of Ishavasyam Ashram at Gangotri, which has a branch at Haridwar.

(3) This is the ubiquitous Pilot Baba. He has literally hundreds of posters. His pandal is up and he is one of the first to really make his presence felt at the Kumbha Mela. I did not go to see him, but I hear that his claim to fame is that he gets buried alive for days at a time. He has a Japanese woman disciple who has learned how to do that as well. A giant billboard was standing at the entrance to his camp. He is also apparently a part of the Juna Akhara.

(4) This poster shows the iconography of the Shanti Kunja or Gayatri Family (Parivar). These people are extremely visible and active. They have a huge property on the Rishikesh-Haridwar Road that extends all the way to the Ganges in the Saptarishi Ashram area. This property has a large number of multi-storey apartment buildings as well as a fairly modern university.

The goddess on the billboard is Gayatri and the Gayatri mantra is around her. They post little stick-its with rather anodyne slogans on them in all the buses and trains. Like the one here, "Man is not a slave of his circumstances, but their controller and master." One fruit juice vendor in town had one of these slogans pasted to his cart. It said something like, "Never forget that you are the most important person in the world." I kidded him about it, but he was pretty juiced up about it. The founder is the rather uncharismatic looking Sri Ram Sharma, who has written numerous books that I have not read.

(5) This nicely touched up photo of Avadheshananda Giri is one of the more common around town. He is a Mahamandaleshwara, but does not advertise his affiliation to an akhara. Avadheshananda has written numerous popular books that are sold at almost every popular outlet for religious books. He appears to be a popular kathaka.

(6) Probably the second most numerous in terms of billboards is the following one of Ramananda sampradaya acharya Swami Narendracharyaji Maharaj. His signs all say "The Hindi Religion is in Danger." All the signs give a different reason for this danger. I am sorry that I only have this one, as it would have been good to catalog all the reasons given. This one says, "Our Hindu brothers do not get religious instruction in childhood." This is followed by the rousing, "Rise up! Step forward! Protect Dharma!"

(7) Ravi Shankar of "Art of Living" fame is one of the top gurus in India. He is from Bangalore I believe. He is here advertising "Maha Rudra Puja" which is shown in the picture.

(8) Hands down winner in the billboard competition is Soham Baba. This poster is in Hindi ("Stop Global Warming"), but he was the only advertiser who was more frequently spreading his message in English. He really touched all bases and seems to really be out to save the world. We got a good laugh out of one poster showing him giving sandesh from a typical Indian sweet box to a docile line of African villagers dressed in their tribal costumes. Another notable billboard shows him walking in Holland past a windmill being followed by a small crowd of Europeans. Yet another shows him in the middle of a crowd being flanked by two very sinister looking white bodyguards. This man is pushing for the top... He has a mission! He is also Juna Akhara.

There are plenty more and maybe I will go back and collect some more.. We still have a couple more months of Mela.