17 November 2006

How will I know?

…when it’s time to move on to Buddhism, to Confucianism, to Daoism, to Christianity, to Judaism, to Islam?

Humility, patience, sincerity,
nonviolence, uprightness, purity,
devotion to one’s spiritual teacher,
constancy, self-control,

dispassion toward objects of the senses,
freedom from the I-sense, insight
into the evils of birth,
sickness, old age, and death,

detachment, absence of clinging
to son, wife, family, and home,
an unshakable equanimity
in good fortune or in bad,

an unwavering devotion to me
above all things, an intense
love of solitude, distaste
for involvement in worldly affairs,

persistence in knowing the Self
and awareness of the goal of knowing—
all this is called true knowledge;
what differs from it is called ignorance.

Bhagavad Gita, 13.7-11

I was in Swami Sarvadevanada’s tiny office, trying to understand more about the specific elements of the Kali puja when I tried to ask him some personal questions again. Old habits die hard.

“What was your name…before?” I asked.

The swami was behind his desk.

“Why do you want to know that?”

“I don’t know. But I do.”

Cool fall air was coming in the window behind him. There was a long pause before he answered. “We want to forget our past identity. This is a monastic identity. I am a monk. I am for the whole world. My name is Sarvadevananda; I am a priest ‘of the consciousness of all gods.’ That means universal. I don’t give any attachment to my family.”

“None at all?”

“No. Wherever I am, that is my family, eh? So, to get over our personal identities of little things of life, we left that (his original name) back and I don’t want to go back to that identity and remember ‘Oh I belong to this. I was born here and this and that.’”

“And if you miss--”

“What shall you miss? If you get something higher, you don’t miss.”

I tried to imagine doing this to my family: I just couldn’t. But then, I didn’t grow up in India or in a household where religion comes before everything so I can’t possibly get an accurate sense of the meaning or the impact of Swami Sarvadevenanda’s decision on his family. I do know that Swamiji’s so firm about the insignificance of names that it’s been the source of one of our only intractable disagreements.

I’ve had Swami Sarvadevenanda (along with several other people) fact-check everything I’ve written and will write about Hinduism and he’s asked for only one change I’ve refused to make: Swamiji wanted me to remove every mention of his name, Sarvadevananda, except for the very first time I introduce him, and simply refer to him as “the swami.” The reason: the message is what’s important, the message of Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, not the person delivering the message.

I said I understood his point but I thought it’d seem awkward and a bit odd if he became this anonymous shadow rather than the flesh and blood person that he is. And it’s that flesh and blood person who is my teacher. Okay, so it’s really (according to Vedanta) the teachings of Ramakrishna, of Swami Vivekananda, of Brahman coming through this teacher sitting in front of me in his orange robes and big glasses but, still, he is the teacher before me and it’s his way of communicating these ideas that brought me to the Vedanta Society in the first place.

I decided to move from the personal family history to safer ground.“What does – Sarvadevananada mean?”

“First word ‘Sarva’ means ‘all’. ‘Deva’ means god, gods. And ‘ananda’ means joy, bliss. So you have: ‘the bliss of all the gods’. That means you are reminded you are not a man, not a woman, you are (imperishable consciousness) and you are awakening to that consciousness.”

I looked down at my hands. Ink from my pen was on my fingers. “I’m so grateful to you for what you’ve been giving…”

Swamiji interrupted me with a wave of his hand. “Spiritual life is like that, to share, eh? If you eat good food, you want to share with others.” He laughed.

I said, “All the different temples I went to and ...I end up here, a temple where Ramakrishna has done, obviously in a much deeper way, what I’m trying to do.” (Ramakrishna spent some time practicing both Christianity and Islam.)

“I think that is the way God is taking you in different experiences and brought to the right place. That’s all.”

In some of the classes, the swami had discussed other religions so I said, “Buddhism has come up a little bit and you’ve talked about the point of religion is to see God, to have that real sense of a Presence. Doesn’t – again, I don’t know that much about Buddhism yet but doesn’t Buddhism say there is no god?”

“Yes. But the question is the definition of God. What do you mean by God?” He paused for effect. “Buddhism says: don’t talk about it. Buddha took the Vedantic idea – he (Buddha) was born Vedantic – he said: ‘Look at the world. What is permanent? By the time you sit for some moment, the thing changes. Every fraction of a second everything is changing. So, if everything is changing, it gives the illusion of reality.’ For example if you take a fan blade: when it moves very fast you don’t see the blade. Does it mean that there is no blade?”


“Vedanta says negate, negate, to come to one Absolute Reality.” The swami was talking about the Hindu idea of going through everything your senses can perceive to realize, one-by-one, that these were not the Divine. “Buddha didn’t say that. He said only: ‘Be a lamp unto you.’ What Buddha said – he didn’t want to get caught into that trap of God, God, God, what is this, that? He wanted to emphasize: go back to the source of the light - consciousness. Eh? So, his language was different (but) go to the realization— When he got the realization, look at his face. He was beaming in joy. Where the joy comes from if there is no joy inside? So what’s the difference between (the Hindu definition of God and the Consciousness of Buddhism)? The effect we see the same. So the words are just labels.”

I then brought up a subject that had been on my mind since I started this whole project. “So how will I know when it’s time to go on to another (faith?) If I’m going to do this work, at some point I have to say, ‘Okay, it’s time to turn my attention to the next tradition.’ What is your suggestion about how I will know?”

“This is your project. Writing about this is one thing, that’s a project. But your spiritual sadhana, you should have to go deep with one thought, one idea, one practice. Otherwise, it is like digging the ground to get water: you dig ten feet here, you dig ten feet there and you never get any water. You have to be persistent in going down and down. Your spiritual life should be dedicated to one idea, one principle.”

“But can’t this (project) be of service?” I asked.

“This can be a great service,” the swami said, “to bring this concept is a great thing because harmony is the need of this age. So, you should have to study the others and put their views forward with as much emotion and connection in that particular practice as you can. Here is a person, Ramakrishna, he individually practiced all these religions and came to the same conclusion: that all roads lead to the same conclusion.”

“What is your suggestion about how will I know when it’s time?”

“You’ll have to figure it out.”

I laughed. “I knew you were gonna say that. I was just kind of hoping there’d be something more, I don’t know, you know….”

“You pray inside and say: ‘Oh Lord guide me from my heart’ and your mind will say. Or some opportunity will come or, as you say, you didn’t know about us or anything and you happened to be in Kumbha Mela. So, I am saying something like that may come up and God will show you the path.”

Sri Ramakrishna & Swami Vivekananda

The Hollywood Vedanta Society main office and chapel

15 November 2006


Children – they force you to deal, don’t they?

Do any action you must do,
since action is better than inaction;
even the existence of your body
depends on necessary actions.

The whole world becomes a slave
to its own activity, Arjuna;
if you want to be truly free,
perform all actions as worship.

Bhagavad Gita 3.8-3.9

Luke, Matt, and I sat at the breakfast table eating. I told them all about the Kali puja and the overwhelming display of food at the Swaminarayan New Year’s celebration.

“Well, Mom,” Matt offered, “I’m sure when you get through with your spiritual quest you’ll know what religion to choose.”

From the other side of the table, Luke attacked: “She’s not on a spiritual quest. She’s on a fake spiritual quest. Maybe once she’s done, then she’ll start to figure it out.” Luke turned to me for verification, “Right, Mom?”

I said nothing at all back.

And the vacuum was filled with fraternal verbal swordplay over whether what I’m doing is real or fake and what real or fake means anyway and whether the other could possibly understand anything at all in the first place and getting words in “edgewise” and who was interrupting whom.

I was taken aback by Luke’s words. It was almost like he was asking me to reassure him I wasn’t actually on a personal spiritual search but just engaged in a safe exercise in journalism - the look on his face, his full blue-eyed question, the morning light on the tiled floor, on the corner of the yellow table cloth, the complete momentary pause in the conversation.

Why can’t I answer? Is what I’m doing fake? And what could fake possibly mean when I’ve dropped everything in my life to do this and only this?

I have to admit I’m on some kind of personal search. If “fake” means I don’t know whether I’ll get anywhere, if “fake” means I might not get to any definitive place, any definitive faith by the end of this, if “fake” means I might find out I don’t have the ability to be what people call “spiritual” within me, then I guess I must accept that label as possible. What I’m doing is nothing more than what every single human being, aware of their own mortality, must go through in one form or another.

But I want something more from this than digging up my own personal belief system. I want to understand what’s happening in a world beset by violence that claims religious doctrine as its source and that obsession of mine is very real. And, whether global or just personal, I do have faith that my effort will be worth something in the end even if I can’t know right now in what way precisely. That faith isn’t fake. That faith I have. That faith is real.

24 October 2006

Seeing God...

This passage of the Bhagavad Gita freaked me out when I read it. Don't judge, just read and imagine what it describes...

Arjuna said:
Tell me now, in detail,
the divine manifestations
by which you pervade these worlds
and grace them with so much splendor.

How can I know you, Krishna?
Which of your many forms
should I visualize, Lord of Yoga,
as I focus my thoughts on you?

Give me some further examples
of your glorious manifestations;
for I never can tire of hearing
your life-giving, honey-sweet words.

The Blessed Lord said:
All right, Arjuna, I will tell you
a few of my manifestations,
the most glorious ones; for infinite
are the forms in which I appear.

I am the Self, Arjuna,
seated in the heart of all beings;
I am the beginning and the life span
of beings, and their end as well.

Of the sky gods, I am Vishnu;
of the heavenly lights, the sun;
Marichi, chief of the wind gods;
among stars, I am the moon;

of the Vedas, I am the hymns;
Indra among the gods;
the mind among the six senses;
the consciousness of all beings;

of the storm gods, I am Shiva;
of demigods, Kubera;
Agni among the bright gods;
and Meru, highest of mountains.

Know, Arjuna, that among
priests I am Brihaspati;
of generals, the war god Skanda;
of waters, I am the ocean;

of the great seers, I am Bhrigu;
of words, the syllable Om;
of worship, I am the mantra;
of mountain chains, Himalaya;

of trees, the sacred fig tree;
of divine sages, Narada;
of the high celestial musicians,
Chitraratha; of saints,

the wise Kapila; of horses,
Ucchaishravas, Indra’s
favorite, born of the sea foam;
of elephants, Indra’s winged

Airavata; of men,
I am the king; of weapons,
Indra’s thunderbolt; of cows,
Kamadhuk, the wish-granter;

Kandarpa, the god of love;
the king of reptiles, Vasuki;
of divine serpents, I am
Ananta, the cosmic serpent; Varuna

among the gods of the ocean;
of the blessed forefathers, I am
Aryaman; of the controllers,
Yama, the god of death;

of demons, the devout Prahlada;
of things that compel, I am time;
the king of animals, the lion;
Garuda among the birds;

of purifiers, the wind;
of warriors, I am Rama;
of sea monsters, Makara;
of rivers, the holy Ganges;

of creations, the beginning and the end
and the middle as well, Arjuna;
of knowledge, knowledge of the Self;
of orators, I am the speech;

of letters, the first one, A:
I am imperishable time;
the Creator whose face is
everywhere; death that devours all things;

the source of all things to come;
of feminine powers, I am
fame, wealth, speech, and
memory, intelligence, loyalty, forgiveness;

of chants, I am the great Brihat;
of poetic meters, the gayatri;
of months, Margashirsha,
the first month; of seasons, the flower-lush spring;

of swindles, I am the dice game;
the splendor of the high and mighty;
determination and victory;
the courage of all brave men;

of the Vrishi clan, I am Krishna;
of Pandavas, I am Arjuna;
of the sages, I am Vyasa;
of poets, the sublime Ushanas;

of punishers, I am the scepter;
the astuteness of the great leaders;
the silence of secret things;
and I am the wisdom of the wise.

I am the divine seed
within all beings, Arjuna;
nothing, inanimate or animate,
could exist for a moment without me.

These are just a small number
of my infinite manifestations;
were I to tell you more,
there would be no end to the telling.

Whatever in this world is excellent
and glows with intelligence or beauty –
be sure that it has its source
in a fragment of my divine splendor.

But what need is there for all
these details? Just know that I am,
and that I support the whole
universe with a single fragment of myself.

Bhagavad Gita, 10.17-10.40

22 October 2006

It's October, Happy New Year!

Now, this was something to see. I had no idea what Annakut was and, frankly, I didn’t bother to look it up because, if Hemu invited me, that was enough for me so I didn’t bring my camera. But I did find a few pictures on line... just wait.

By worship you will nourish the
gods and the gods will nourish you in turn;
by nourishing one another
you assure the well-being of all.

Bhagavad Gita 3.10

When I got to the Whittier BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir (temple) in Whittier, Hemu was easy to find. Although crowds of people were talking in small happy groups or wandering in out of the hot late fall sun, I had now her cell phone number and she had mine. I was by her side in a moment and, when I bent down to touch her feet – or at least show some effort to get down there while we were standing on the black macadam- she grabbed me and laughed, “No, wrong person. I should be the one doing that to you!”

That wasn’t true, of course -- the student always bows to the person with the knowledge -- but we settled for a quick hug. Hemu is one of the only people who makes me feel tall. Her neat, shiny hair was parted in the middle and she was wearing yet another elegant sari in honor of the festive occasion. She said, “You know, I really feel like I’ve always known you.”

I knew exactly what she meant. “Me, too, Hemu.”

“Come. Let me show you something.”

I’d finally learned that you never come to a temple empty-handed so I’d brought flowers which, Hemu gently pointed out, was a perfectly fine offering on most days and was even perfectly fine that day as well but, on Annakut, the first day of the new year, what people were supposed to bring was food. As we walked in to the mandir, I found out why.

There are not enough excessive words to describe what was in that room. The entire length of the altar was blocked by a wooden, stepped platform covered with hundreds of individual plates of food, perfectly presented, as if ready for a commercial photo shoot. A second showcase for still more plates was actually a fountain with four separate sprays of water, each lit a different color by underwater lights. The variety of the food was astounding.

I asked Hemu, “What's this all this about?”

“This is the first day of the new year,” Hemu said, “and we are offering all this food to God so he will give it back to us all year. The target was like nine-hundred to twelve hundred items.”

“How many did you bring?”

“I brought like seven or eight.”

“I’ve never seen so much food put out like this.”

“It’s our way of saying thank you to Lord Ganesh for everything he will provide this year. There are about seven hundred items here today.”

And it turns out, seven hundred plates of food requires two rooms, two enormous stepped platforms to display because there was even more food, on an even larger stepped platform, in the main prayer hall where people were sitting, watching a video transmission of the sadhus officiating the service in the other hall – there were just too many people there to use just one.

I loved being there with Hemu, loved that she'd thought to invite me but I struggle in the midst of big pageants like these. It's hard for me to respond in anyway other than as an observer, a parade-watcher, a gawker. I'm certain I'd have a much different feeling about all of this had I stayed up, night after night, probably with family members, making one special dish after another to contribute to the offering. It'd be a family ritual, then, like decorating our Christmas tree or our nearly annual attempt to make a gingerbread house. (It's a good thing ours aren't ever meant to be on display.) But I think Annakut offers more than just annual ritual, if you're open to it.

So much of Hinduism involves treating whatever your idea of God is kind of like a revered corporal figure. Most of these rituals involve the symbolic feeding, bathing and clothing of whatever form of God you worship so there's an opportunity to develop an intimate, on-going relationship - not so easy when I find myself truly incapable of imagining any form that might even serve as a stand-in for the Divine. Not only that, I think I have a hard time with the display portion of organized religion. It might just be that I haven't had enough experience with it to feel comfortable but there may be more to it than that: the moments I've had in my life where I've felt something I might identify as the first rumblings of the sacred have always occurred in quiet, in solitude or something close to it, only on occasion in the midst of an event and usually those events involved a story that made me see things a different way - events like plays or movies, even songs.

I do know I was so much more comfortable being there with my current frame of mind than the one I've lugged around with me all of my life. I sat next to Hemu while she translated the service in in my notebook just trying to understand and to appreciate, to find what I could in it that might have meaning for me while accepting that whatever might not resonate still was beautiful and possibly moving to others. Boy, that hasn't been my natural state until recently. If I'd ended up some place like this decades ago I would have tried to soothe my feelings of dislocation and fear by cataloguing all that was "weird" instead of just taking the time to understand more. What a sad way I've lived some of my life.

As the service continued, I began to wonder if any of the sadhus I was seeing on the big screens (although they were just one hall away)was the one who’d read and written his reactions to my project. I pointed to one and asked Hemu, “Is that the one who answered my email?” Why I needed to see the face of the monk originally shocked by project, shocked by me, I didn't know but I did. I guess I wanted to see the face of someone my upbringing could shock.

Hemu answered, “No. That isn’t him.”

“Is the one who answered here?”

“Yes, I’ll show him to you.” We watched the screen showing the ritual in the other room for a while when all of a sudden Hemu said, “That’s him. He was the one just singing. He was born here.”

Just before the camera panned away, I caught a glimpse of a tall, thin man with a close-cropped beard, probably in his mid-thirties, possibly forty, but I doubted it. He didn’t seem all that shockable but, as alien as Hinduism was for me, my upbringing outside of any faith and practice must have been alien – and even shocking – to him.

I sat on the floor next to Hemu who, without discussion, had taken my notebook and was busily translating whatever was said. Around her right wrist were at least five of the magenta puja strings like the one she'd tied on mine at my very first "puja" or worship service, the string she’d told me was supposed to symbolize our devotion to God. Hers were all different shades: some new and bright, one pale and about to break. My single strand had frayed and faded a bit but was still, more than a month later, strong on my wrist. Hard to believe but, in all this time, no one had asked me about it or even seemed to notice it; it was just a piece of cotton kitchen string tied to my wrist and slowly losing its once uneven shade of magenta. I’d been wondering what I was supposed to do about it. Was I supposed to cut it off or what? But it felt strange to just call Hemu up to ask.

Now I had my answer: it's supposed to stay on until it falls off.

Well, okay.

22 October 2006

More Annakut pictures from various BAPS Swaminarayan mandirs around the country....

Cleveland & Houston....

Boston and New Jersey...

21 October 2006

Email from Hemu

Jai swaminarayan

I hope you are doing well.
It’s been a while since we communicated.
I am inviting you to the New Year's day - Annakut celebrations which will be on Sunday, October 22. The festivities will begin at 11:00 am in the morning.

I hope you can make it. Looking forward to seeing you on Sunday.

Jai swaminarayan

The Destroyer of Time

One of the consequences of this project is that words I used to use without much thought, words like “miracle”, I can’t trot out so willy-nilly these days. I mean, before I started all of this, I’d have just let my fingers tell you that, by the end of this night, I’d sat still – as in no-moving-at-all still -- for more than ten hours and, for me, that was a miracle. Now that I’m quite certain that I have no idea what qualifies as a miracle, what I can say is: something’s changing and this is my evidence. The event? The Vedanta Society’s annual Kali puja.

The Hindu goddess Kali is terrifying – and she’s meant to be. Her annual celebration - or puja - is a big deal at the Vedanta Society because Ramakrishna had his first direct experience of the Divine after years of obsessively praying to “Mother Kali.” I’d been warned that the Kali puja at the Hollywood Vedanta Center was so popular, so dramatic, so theatrical, that people from all over southern California came, many with no interest whatsoever in Hinduism, making it impossible to get in the small chapel so, if I wanted to be able to see what was going on, I was going to have to get there early.
It was supposed to begin at ten o’clock at night so I got there four hours before. Even so, there were only a couple of spaces left in the small parking lot. With my notebook, a pen, a bottle of water, and a small bag of emergency cashews in hand, I walked to the chapel, passing by a wooden stand with a paper signed taped to it that pointed the way to the bookstore for those who wouldn’t be able to get in the building later that night. The white shoe racks were already standing outside to accommodate the crowds and keep the doorway clear.
Inside, most of the pews were gone and the raised altar area was lit up. A group of orange robed nuns and white-robed helpers were scurrying back and forth, preparing. But, even in all the tumult, you couldn’t miss her

In one of the corners of the normally muted ivory altar alcove was a human-sized representation of possibly the most dramatic deity in all of Hinduism, Kali, surrounded by blood-red silk that had been pinned to the fabric walls in her honor. Jet black with red accents, Kali is the mother of the universe, the power of time, the goddess of creation and destruction. She’s usually standing on the white body of Shiva, her consort, on a large silver lotus blossom. Every year a different local artist made a new representation of Kali and this one was stunning. Her four black arms each had red palms. A sword in the shape of a vicious question mark and dripping with painted blood was raised high over her head by one of her left arms while her other left arm held a recently severed man’s head by the hair with blood still dripping from the neck. Kali’s two right arms offered boons and protection. A vertical third eye was in the center of her ebony brow, her long black hair was thick and wild, and a necklace of fifty skulls hung from her neck. With embryos for earrings and a girdle of men's arms circling her waist, if you can get with Kali, the others, like the friendly elephant figure of Ganesh, the god of success, the remover of obstacles who rides on a mouse, or Hanuman, the playful obedient monkey, are a piece of cake.

A young man, dressed in sweats and a loose shirt, was busy marking off two narrow but long rectangles on the carpet up front with masking tape. When he stood to leave, pieces of paper with marker scrawl made clear that only monastics could sit within them. I grabbed a small round silk-covered cushion filled firm with seeds or husks of something and put it right behind one of the rectangles, insuring a clear view of Kali, and sat on it.
It was a few minutes after six in the evening.
Ramakrishna was an extremely emotional and devotional guy who cared little for what anyone else thought. Christopher Isherwood’s biography of Ramakrishna, written for a western audience, began almost apologetically by acknowledging that most of us western, factual materialists or even those devoted to almost any Judeo-Christian faith, might have a pretty hard time swallowing the stories about this fairly recent historical figure.
This is the story of a phenomenon. I will begin by calling him simply that, rather than ‘holy man’, ‘mystic’, ‘saint’, or ‘avatar’; all emotive words with mixed associations which may attract some readers, repel others.

I only ask you approach Ramakrishna with the same open-minded curiosity you might feel about any highly unusual human being: a Julius Ceasar, a Catherine of Siena, a Leonardo da Vinci, and Arthur Rimbaud. Dismiss from your mind, as far as you are able, such categories as holy-unholy, sane-insane, wide-foolish, pure-impure, positive-negative, useful-useless.
It is difficult, in fact, to reconcile this very emotional, experiential figure with the cerebral, almost protestant form of the faith one sees most days in Vedanta centers across the country. Perhaps it’s an accommodation to western tastes but, given that Hinduism’s central tenet is you must find whatever path suits you, it makes sense that the Vedanta centers would highlight the parts of their practice that might encourage instead of alienate us westerners.

Ramakrishna’s single-minded pursuit of direct knowledge of God made many people – even those who ultimately came to be his main disciples – consider the possibility of insanity before coming to revere him. He spent most of his life in the Kali temple in Dakshineswar, India, on the banks of a river near Calcutta (Kolkata)where he would spontaneously disengage from what was going on around him in a state of spiritual ecstasy that could manifest itself as dancing with abandon for hours or, more often, in an inability to talk, walk or move. After his death in 1886, Narendra, who had been both a follower and one of Ramakrishna’s biggest doubters, who became Swami Vivekananda, helped found this sect and finally introduced it to the United States in 1893. In his first visit here, Swami Vivekananda often wore a western clerical collar, so Americans would understand his role. He also concentrated on the tenets of the faith more than its rituals. Deities like Kali weren’t stressed in the United States…at least at first.

So, for those of us with a more theoretical rather than devotional bent, the Vedanta center’s almost protestant simplicity and well-stocked bookstore make it easy to forget about all of those exotic, multi-armed, sometimes well-endowed gods and goddesses. The worship of deities is, in some sense, optional in Hinduism. They aren’t meant to be “God” or “Gods” but representations of some of the powers of the Absolute Reality of which we are all a part. As an example of how different the concept of these deities is from the Judeo-Christian concept, the Upanishads, one of the central sacred texts somewhat equivalent to the Christian Bible, says: “The life of a god is eternal in comparison with a man’s life on earth but it is non-eternal from the standpoint of the Absolute.” So if you identify God as infinite, omnipotent, and eternal, these Hindu figures aren’t that. Their purpose is to offer different pathways for different people so they can personally come to know or experience the Infinite Unknowable called “Brahman.”

To tell the truth, it's an enormous relief not to have to consider directly worshiping these fearsome figures as “God.” But, given that they were, in some sense, the most well-known part of the faith even to outsiders, I felt I couldn’t pretend they didn’t exist any longer. My very western antipathy to idol worship had prevented me from coming to understand what those figures did have to offer.

As I settled in to the round rustling silk pillow on the floor to watch the nuns in orange and the novices in white prepare for the Kali worship ceremony, the striking sight of Kali in the back corner was soon rivaled by the incongruous profusion of flowers. They were everywhere. Too many vases to count crowded on every ledge on the altar, spilling out onto the floor all around. Kali’s flower is the red hibiscus although it’s clear that any red flower will do. Shiva’s is the white jasmine blossom though, again, color clearly trumps the species. After draping three firehose-sized garlands on Kali and smaller garlands on the photos of Ramakrishna, Vivekanada and Ramakrishna’s wife, (yes, Ramakrishna was, uniquely, in a lifelong celibate marriage) a young novice stuffed more flowers in the U of the garland so all that was visible was her scary black head. The head nun, a large, brisk elderly Australian woman, occasionally gave clipped directions in a regular voice that seemed like a shout in a room where people usually chanted, if they spoke at all.
So, what’s Kali’s story? There are many versions with slight variations but the one contained in a book called Kali: The Black Goddess of Dakshineswar for sale in the Vedanta bookstore was this: Demons were running wild and even the gods themselves were having a hard time dealing with them. So Shiva along with Vishnu, Brahma, Indra and the “other mighty gods” beamed rays of blinding light and…

…all the gods’ rays joined at one point and, slowly, the blazing concentration of light took shape in the form of a woman. The light of Shiva formed her face, Yama gave her hair and Vishnu her arms. From the light of Chandra, the moon god, her two breasts were formed. Indra modeled her waist and Varuna her thighs. Earth gave her hips and Brahma feet. The light from the fire god, Agni, fashioned her three eyes.

But the gods didn’t stop there; they gave her weapons.

Shiva gave her a trident drawn forth from his own, Vishnu a powerful discus, and Indra, the king of the gods, gave her a thunderbolt identical to his own. Surya, the sun god, bestowed his rays on all the pores of her skin and Varuna, the god of the ocean, gave her a divine crest jewel, earrings, bracelets and a garland of unfading lotuses.

Kali fought the demons, slaying most easily with her sword or gnashing them in her teeth but, when she encountered one who could regenerate from drops of its own blood when cut, she simply picked him up and swallowed him.
Once all the demons were gone, however, Kali’s destruction didn’t stop. She was in such a frenzy, she kept “smashing and slashing the dead demons all over again.” The gods didn’t know what to do to stop her but Shiva, Kali’s consort, had an idea. Covered with ashes, he lay down among the corpses. Kali, still raging with blood lust…

…found herself standing on top of a beautiful male body – nude and besmeared with white ashes. Awed, she stood still for a moment, looked down at him, and saw straight into the eyes of her husband, Shiva.

And she stopped.

This vicious story means Kali’s evil, right? Well, not really. Kali is beloved. As the Mother of the Universe or as Time or the Destroyer of Time, she ‘s kind of like a mother tiger …but yours. Although nothing and no one will survive Time, Kali’s destruction is creative, wiping away sin, decay, and disease to allow for a new start. “She’s Cosmic Power, the complete picture. Nothing is missing. All good (symbolized by her right side) and all bad (symbolized by her left side) is within her.” She’s black but that means she’s clothed in space, without any real form, and will continue to exist even when the world ends as pure energy. The necklace of skulls, one for each letter of the Sanskrit alphabet, represents the idea of creation by the naming of things, an early instance of the idea of Logos or “the Word” found later in the Christian Bible. Her embryo earrings represent creation and the girdle of men’s arms represents “human action as well as its resulting karma that has been taken back by Kali.” Kali is an extremely popular deity in India and is considered the patron saint of working people.
From information available on line, I also learned that the Kali puja back in the Indian headquarters of the Ramakrishna Order ended with the sacrifice of a goat.
A live goat.
So I came to the Center a bit worried about that, looking for evidence that that might be part of the night. But I figured that the person who warned me about the crowds – the American woman named Leslie - would certainly have told me if goat killing was part of it, right? But, what if she forgot? Or assumed I knew? I mean, I can’t even go to scary or violent movies because I can’t convince myself that someone isn’t really being hurt, that it isn’t real. The images of every single terrifying movie scene I’ve ever seen even by accident while flipping the channels never leaves my mind. Then, again, I’ve eaten slaughtered animals almost all of my life, I just haven’t had to see the process by which they ended up on my plate. Is there really any difference?

At the BAPS Sri Swaminarayan Mandir in Whittier(note: location now in Chino Hills) , there was no goat-killing. There was an absolute ban on killing anything, even a fly, even by accident. I was pretty certain the Vedanta Society couldn’t and they wouldn’t even if it were allowed, still, there was a tiny part of my brain that never stopped checking for any evidence that a live goat might be part of the evening to come. But there, amid the profusion of flowers and scurrying nuns, I finally noticed another small, mostly brown figure on Kali’s left. It appeared to be a representation of a headless animal at the goddess’ feet. A papier mache goat meant there wouldn’t be a real one. Right?
During the four hours it took to prepare, I sat on the cushion on the floor in silence, absorbed in the coming and the going. Small groups of friends, families with their elders, younger families with small children came in to bring gifts, which they left in bags on the front of the carpeted stage before bowing down until their heads touched the floor. Some of the younger women appeared to be particularly taken by Kali in all of her finery. Many took photographs. One young father brought a daughter wearing her very first sparkly dress who couldn’t have been more than two up to the carpeted steps leading up to the altar and tried to teach her how to bow but the wide-eyed child was too excited to focus enough for the lesson.
Once sheets of plywood covered in red fabric were on the ground, the nuns covered them with trays of blossoms and fruit; brass and glass dishes and pots; countless candles; glasses of sacred water; bowls of colorful powders; piles of tulsi leaves still on their branches; trays with jewelry, perfumes, bathing products or stacks of saris; and bouquets of incense and then dimmed the lights.

Here and there I saw faces I was beginning to recognize. A woman from the small class in the living room sat down on the carpet with a friend; the good-looking man who had marked off the carpet with masking tape was back to take his place inside one of those rectangles reserved for the monastics, tossing his white – what was it? A dhoti? What is that separate wrap of cloth on top called? – over his shoulder just as I’d seen the other monastics do. Even though all of us sitting on the floor were close enough to touch, there was at once a sense of privacy and an almost intimate and immediate accommodation for any small adjustment that any neighbor made. Most, except the smallest children, sat still, some with cream-colored shawls trimmed with orange or red over their heads. By the time the ceremony began at ten, even most of the children were still, asleep in their parents’ laps.

Although there are countless skills I lack, I did have one small trait that prepared me for this project. My legs have always been just a tad too short to reach the floor in most chairs so I’ve spent a lifetime sitting cross-legged even on normal chairs…at my own kitchen table. Or so I told myself. There had to be some explanation for the hours passing without my feeling rammy or restless or my knees and back starting to ache. But I didn’t and they didn’t. At one point I thought I really should drink something, drink some water, but it seemed too disruptive, not to anyone else but me.

The ceremony began so quietly, with such little fanfare, I was surprised when I realized it had started. The officiating swami, Swami Aparananda, a slight, grey-haired man who had come from Berkeley to officiate, was followed by Swami Sarvadevananda carrying a ring binder with the complex ceremony’s order of rituals and chants. In the hours of dipping flower after flower in sandlewood paste or sacred water, chanting over each joint in the swamis bodies to purify them, lighting of one stick after another of incense, and the presentation of tray after tray of offerings each given to Kali one by one, I lost all sense of time. At first I made notes in my book but soon I was floating on an image of two men in a perfumed smoky sea of fire and flowers, presided over by a goddess whose image - with the exception of her red tongue – was submerged in blossoms. For anyone who might have tried and failed at meditating, this was what we were all doing, eyes open or shut, whether we knew it or not, whether or not we were trying. Time became elastic, nonexistent, as we drifted in the dim half-light. There was no point in counting or knowing or clock watching. The swami’s movement from one object to another with a purpose unknown but a purpose nonetheless was our only reality.

One woman sang:

She comes with stars in her hair,
of lives she wears,
With her sword she severs chains
And shows how to love again.
Dazzling dancer
Nature’s song she sings,

Love is the message she brings.

Finally, around two in the morning, just as I began to get delirious, the service seemed to be wrapping up when a woman came to the center of the stairs and said, “Please move into the living room for the Homa fire which will be followed by the flower offering immediately after and then Prasad.”
It was after two o’clock in the morning and there were three more ceremonies?

Leaving the cocoon of the carpeted chapel in bare feet was a shock. No matter how hot the day, around here the temperature plummets as much as thirty or forty degrees at night so we tiptoed quickly across the cold bricks to find our shoes and, along with hundreds of people in every state from exhaustion to special-occasion adrenaline, we walked to the same building where the swami ate dinner with everyone after classes.

The wood paneled living room wasn’t big enough to hold everyone so some stood outside, watching through the sliding glass doors as Swami Aparananda and Swami Sarvadevananda, the ring binder still in hand, faced the fireplace. In the small manual The Worship of Sri Ramakrishna, the homa fire was called “a very ancient belief and practice that any offering…to a Deity should be offered to fire.” The Vedas call fire “the mouth of the Deities.” The purpose of the homa fire is to wipe out differences, to see that, when you get right down to it, all that we see as form, all that we see as substance, really is nothing, indistinguishable from ash.

A wooden frame was ready and, though hard to light at first, it soon took hold, turning a banana, a flower, an apple and a number of other things I couldn’t see into ashes while Swami Sarvadevananda led us in repeating the name of God twenty-eight times. When the ceremony was over, the swamis scooped ashes out into dishes and put a fingerprint of them on every person’s head as they left the room, mine included. Walking out, lightheaded, almost nine hours after arriving, the ashes on my skin felt like they had real weight. I think I was trying to see what the blotch of ashes looked like from inside my head out but I soon gave up. It was three-fifteen in the morning. I fell into the flow of people back to the chapel for the flower dedication.

The swamis began by laying prone on the floor in front of Kali. When they stood up, assistants picked up new voluminous bowls of flowers and stood at the bottom of the altar stairs. People began walking up the stairs, taking a flower, bowing down on the floor and then giving their flower to a swami for Kali. I wasn’t sure until the long line finally had an end whether or not I would or could do this. I was in an altered state after all those hours of sitting so, when the end of the line finally started to pass me by, I found myself in it, unwilling to be just an observer any longer.

At the stairs to the altar I took a yellow flower with a red stamen from the bowl and then climbed the soft, padded stairs. Swami Sarvadevananda seemed a bit surprised to see me but I didn’t to look to see if there was more in his eyes. The silver lotus blossom was full to Kali’s knees with flowers and the various offerings. Did people get these things back? Like some of the food we were going to eat next, the food they call “prasad,” made into holy food by spending some time as an offering? Maybe those who brought them got them back afterwards but I wasn’t sure.

I knelt, touched my head to the ground and handed over the flower. I felt like a gawky colt. Up close, I could see that some of Kali’s flowers, especially those on the garlands that had been put round her neck almost ten hours earlier, were starting to wilt but the riot of color was grand against such a black but unexpectedly gentle face. I turned, walked down the stairs to join in the final prayer which ended:

Om, I bow down to you,
O Ramakrishna!

Who established the truth of religions

Who is the personification of all religions
The Embodiment of the best of all incarnations.

We walked outside to eat a full meal just a few hours before sunrise, ten hours after I first sat down in the chapel.There were baskets full of flowers from the altar by the doors. I took two still-perfect flowers – one pink, one giant yellow hibiscus with a violent red stamen and stain at its heart – and left.
And the flowers floated, whole and unblemished, in a globe full of water on my kitchen table for a week.
21 October 2006
(Note: Here's a picture of Kali I found online that isn't quite right - Ramakrishna's Kali has a total of four arms - her two "bad" arms (the one with a sword and the other with the severed head) on the left and her two "good" arms on the right - but I include this picture so you can see the girdle of men's arms and the necklace of skulls...)

20 October 2006

Clay image

While some of Ramakrishna’s story makes me nervous – or more precisely, incredulous – when I read something like the passage below, I know I’ve been paying attention to the wrong thing.

This is from a book called
The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna which is actually a compilation of anecdotes written down by one of this most devoted followers, Mahendranath Gupta, who wrote the collection under the simple letter “M.”

Sri Ramakrishna:
You have faith in God without form
. That is very good. But never get it into your head that your faith alone is true and that every other is false. Know for certain that God without form is real and that God with form is also real. Then hold fast to whichever faith appeals to you.

M (a devotee):
But, sir, assuming it is true that God has form, he is surely not identical with the clay image of him?

Sri Ramakrishna:
Why say the image is clay? The image is composed of spirit.

But those who worship the clay image should be made to understand that the clay image is not God, and that while they are bowing down before the image they must remember that they are worshipping God. They must not worship the clay.

Sri Ramakrishna:
Making others understand – giving them lectures – that’s all you Calcutta people think about! You never ask yourselves how you can find the truth. Who are you to teach others? It is the lord of the Universe who teaches mankind. Will he who has done so much for us fail to bring us to the light? If
we need to be taught, he will teach. He knows our inmost thoughts.

Supposing it is a mistake to worship God in the image – doesn’t he know he alone is being worshipped? He will certainly be pleased by that worship. Why should you get a headache over that? It would be better if you struggled to get knowledge and devotion yourself.

Finding Huston Smith?

What a strange fellowship this is, the God-seekers in every land, lifting their voices in the most disparate ways imaginable to the god of all life. How does it sound from above? Like bedlam, or do the strains blend in strange, ethereal harmony?

Huston Smith

The World’s Religions

I gave up trying to find someone who might introduce me to Huston Smith and did what I should have been done to begin with: I looked him up on the internet. His last teaching job had been at the University of California at Berkeley. And there, still in the Berkeley phone book, were his address and home phone number. And I even found his age - eighty-seven.

There was nothing to do but write him a letter, telling him I was at work on a project inspired by his book, The World's Religions. I explained what I'm doing, then wrote:
It's the heart and soul of the project I would like to come talk to you about, if you think you might be willing to meet with me. If there is any way I could stop by, I would be so very, very grateful.

No matter what, thank you for all of your open-hearted work. It has made

an enormous difference in my life.

Marley KD

I gave him my phone numbers and address, then dropped the letter in the mail. There was nothing left to do but wait.

20 October 2006

19 October 2006

Yoga and Thoreau...

…yes, they’re linked.

The firm control of the senses, is what is called yoga.

Katha Upanishad, II.iii 11

I end up in a few yoga classes a year and, about halfway through, I always feel like throwing up. “I want you to think of a string going right up your spine and out through the top of your head throughout the class today,” the blond woman said. “Sit up nice and straight, don’t strain, put your hands together over your heart space and we’re going to start with three “oms” to get centered and our breath working with us.”

Maybe it’s because I’m never sure exactly why I’m there – and I don’t mean just which way to bend. Am I there for exercise? For a stretch class? Is it supposed to be a physical spiritual practice? Is breathing the point? Meditation? In the past, I’d mostly gone hoping to find exercise that could counteract the effects of running so I found myself sprinting out of any shiny wood studio that spent too long on any kind of prayer. I wanted my spiritual lessons straight up, not slipped in when I was just trying to keep my legs from snapping.

But, that morning, while my head hung down just inches from the rubber mat, I knew what I wanted. I wanted to figure out how this kind of yoga fit in with all the other “yogas” I’d been hearing about in Hinduism.

In this softly-lit studio, the only reference to anything Hindu is a poster which looked like the symbol for “om” from far away but, up close, the gray “om” was actually made up of the smallest of human figures in yoga positions, a pretty accurate metaphor for what’s happened to the practice. I doubt anyone in the studio except some of the instructors think much about where yoga came from and why or that they’re actually engaging in a Hindu practice, albeit a pretty dilute form. I know I never had. In fact, I’d been confused when Professor Chapple started talking about yoga and “important” yoga studios as part of Hinduism’s journey west in the first abridged overview that he gave me about Hinduism in the United States but I’d simply scribbled down what he said. Somewhere in all those notes was the name of a documentary he called the best history of yoga he knew: Yoga Unveiled: Evolution and Essence of a Spritual Tradition. It was produced by Gita and Mukash Desai. I’d gotten through part of it before heading off to yogao class.

Yoga is an ancient practice. The word came from the Sanskrit word yuj or yoke. According to the film, archaeologists found representations of people in recognizable yoga poses in relics that date back to 2500 BCE which makes sense as what we call Hinduism was actually a collection of traditions dating back thousands of years before the birth of Jesus. No one person was responsible for its inception and it wasn’t even recognized as a single religion until centuries after it began. Its name came from outsiders who were describing the people living along the Indus river as “Hindus.” Originally an oral tradition, its earliest texts, the Vedas, were finally written down about 200 BCE followed by the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. The practice we call “yoga” came from something called the Patanjali Sutras, a collection of 195 lessons or verses that were assembled by Patanjali somewhere between 1700 and 2200 years ago. Their purpose was to describe how the mind works and a set of physical practices to get beyond its false limitations.

Exercise was never the principal goal of yoga. If you wanted to learn yoga back in Patanjali’s time, you’d probably have to walk for miles to find a guru and then convince him to accept you as a student because the knowledge was considered secret. And the postures were actually the third step of eight on a path meant to lead, as Huston Smith put it, “to integration or union…of the human spirit with the God who lies concealed in its deepest recesses.”

For the physical postures to be effective, according to Patanjali, students had a whole lot of work to do. First, they had to abstain from violence in word and deed (yama) and then rigorously clean up the way they conducted themselves even when they thought no one is looking (niyama). Were you clean? Content? Able to handle austerities and rigorous self-study? Were you in complete surrender to the creator? Then, and only then, would a guru begin to teach the physical postures meant to control the breath, body and mind. The purpose of the training was to remove all obstacles, especially physical ones, to meditation. Maybe that’s why I always feel like throwing up. I’m pretty sure there isn’t much of those two preceding steps I’ve accomplished. I’ll bet that, if I’d truly taken those two steps first, my mind chatter would be less, too. Georg Feuerstein, author of The Shambhala Encyclopedia of Yoga, said: “Yoga without these foundations is a moral impossibility. It cannot fulfill itself. It cannot have the effect it was intended to have and it can truly not transform human life.”

Utthita Trikonasana – triangle pose.” We were standing with our legs were spread wide, leaning forward, with one hand to the ground and the other stretched toward the ceiling. I suddenly remembered that you’re supposed to do yoga on an empty stomach.

The historian said the ultimate purpose of yoga had little to do with becoming fit and limber; it was really meant as preparation for the meditation that might lead one to uniting with the divinity inside each one of us. No wonder it was confusing in those yoga studios when the class ended and everyone leapt to make way for the next group coming in. Those last few minutes of silence and repose are much more important than all that comes before; they are, in fact, the point but that’s gotten lost in the emphasis on physical exercise and appearance.

The teacher walked between the mats, shifting a hip here and the angle of a foot there. I caught a glimpse of the clock. Just ten more minutes and one pose left. Good. The postures were no match for my chattering brain which pounced from commentary on the teacher; to rumination on the use of Sanskrit words when they’ve got perfectly fine English names for all the poses; to my assessment of my performance in comparison with those around me – better than the the guy in a baggy shirt but not even close to the pony-tailed woman in front of me; to a fixation on what the statue up front was (a skinny buddha – what did that have to do with yoga?); and then off again to the smell of the incense - was it bothering anybody? I could never use incense in my office without someone wheezing or gagging. And that summed up a scant thirty seconds of thought in a ninety-minute class.

But my hamstrings were better. I could feel that.

The instructor finally said, “Okay, lie down on your mats in Savasana, corpse pose.”

I dropped to the mat like a wet bath towel, making more noise than felt proper.

“Legs slightly apart, “ the instructor purred. “Then let them fall gently out to the sides. Let your arms fall alongside your body, facing upwards.”

I was whipped and warm, grateful for the stillness.

Within minutes, the teacher had us sitting up, legs crossed, palms together in front of our “heart space.”


Namaste,” we repeated in unison. And then all around me, just as my mind chatter finally stilled, people began rolling up their mats and heading for their cellphones as the next class started to come in. I decided to go home to finish watching the documentary and what I heard next shocked me.

I’d gotten most of what I needed from the documentary – or so I thought – but I came home and, still in my sweats, sat there on the living room rug to finish watching the rest of the four-hour film on the history of yoga. And there, in the section on yoga’s journey west, was that yoga historian saying that the main people responsible for first bringing Hindu thought into this country were Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thoreau and Emerson?

I’d read Walden Pond in both high school and college. I’d read Emerson in high school, college and many times since. I’d been assigned essays on both more than once. Yet I’d never noticed any of this.

Georg Feuerstein said that, while there was some evidence that Hindu thought was at least known by the ancient Greeks, it really wasn’t until the first English translations of the Bhagavad Gita, the Vedas and the Upanishads found their way into the hands of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson in the mid-1800s that these traditions had any significant impact in the United States. He said the Transcendentalists “were deeply affected by Indian thought. Thoreau openly uses words such as Brahman and words such as that.”

Of course Emerson’s “Over-Soul” was the Bhagavad Gita’s imperishable, unchanging “presence that pervades the universe.”
Within man is the soul of the whole; the universal beauty to which every part
and particle is equally related, the eternal One.
Of course, both Emerson and Thoreau stressed a direct, unmediated relationship with the Divine as Hinduism did in stark contrast to the religious practices of their day. Of course, Walden Pond was Thoreau’s Ganges, his time there his yogic retreat. In Walden, Thoreau had been explicit but, still, I hadn’t seen it, hadn’t taken it in.

In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavat Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions. I lay down the book and go to my well or water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Brahmin, priest of Brahma, and ishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or wells at the root of a tree with his crust and water---jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.
How could thought I’d considered so fundamentally a part of my heritage, so fundamentally American, have come, in part, from Hinduism? How could I have started this thing I’m doing with the most obscure, the most ancient, the most remote, the most exotic, the most unknown to me of the traditions and end up here? Inside the pages of some of my most treasured, well-thumbed books? And they were largely responsible for bringing Hindu thought to this country?

Emerson and Thoreau often get slammed for being so “self”-absorbed. This puts it in a different light, doesn’t it, if the “self” they were talking about was actually The Self? In other words, it's not them, in particular, they were trying to fully realize, but the Divine Self.

A few days later, I sat at the long wooden dinner table in the Vedanta Society's dining room after one of Swami Sarvadevananda’s evening classes when the subject came up of how Hinduism first came to the United States. Leslie, an American woman who was raised a Catholic but now wore saris from time to time, said, “It was Swami Vivekananda, wasn’t it? At the Parliament of Religions in Chicago the late 1800s?”

Swamiji’s Bengali-accented English is quite understandable but it’s easy to get tripped up, sometimes, by slight differences in syllabic emphasis. I’m really not sure if it was that or my assumption that the documentary had over-stated the case, or that I thought Hinduism had to have first come to the United States through the aegis of an Indian but I was thought I hadn’t quite heard him right when he answered, “No, it was Thoreau, Thoreau and Emerson who first introduced it here.”

“Thoreau? You mean Walden Pond Thoreau?”


So here’s what I’ve learned about Hinduism so far: If you’ve ever participated in a Lamaze class or seen one on TV, if you think the state of your mind has some impact on your health, if you’ve been to a twelve-step program, if you are interested in astrology or meditation, if you think good or bad deeds might affect your future fortunes, if you can’t understand why such different ideas often seem to come from the crazy people in California, if you’ve read Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry David Thoreau, and, most of all, if you’ve ever gone to a yoga class, Hindu belief, thought or practice has had some impact on your life.

(19 October 2006)