01 October 2006

Believers at war...

If I had chosen to go back to the Malibu Hindu temple, the one I first visited with Matt, instead of the Vedanta Temple, I might have ended up with Swami Sarvadevananda as my teacher anyway. He told me he taught a class there once a month so I decided to go.

The Malibu temple is right on one of the main roads to the ocean from the San Fernando Valley. I left plenty of time to get there – too much time. I settled in to one of the stuffed chairs in the nearest Starbucks to read Karma-Yoga and Bhakti-Yoga written by Swami Vivekananda, one of Ramakrishna’s monks who helped found the Ramakrishna Mission (known here in the United States as Vedanta) and the swami most responsible for igniting interest in Hinduism in the United States in the late 1800s and early 20th century.

The use of the word “yoga” is pretty confusing. What I know of yoga involves exercise but what I’m learning is that the kind of yoga most of us know is actually an off-shoot or descendant of one of the “types” of Hindu spiritual practice (there are four "ways" of worshiping the Divine for four different "types" of people.) In “Raja-yoga,” the path to enlightenment is through learning how to control the body. "Bhakti yoga" is the kind of spiritual practice most of us think of when we think of religion: the worship of Something. It's also called the path of love. "Karma yoga" is worship through work or doing one’s duty without regard for reward or a specific outcome – kind of like Mother Theresa. And the fourth path can be explained this way: if you’re reading this, you’re engaged in an act of “Jnana-yoga” or the path of knowledge. Hinduism says that while these four basic types of worship are open to every one of us, we each tend to be more comfortable in one more than the others.

The Karma path or the path of work, Swami Vivekananda described like this:
If you really want to judge the character of a man, do not look at his great performances. Every fool can act as a hero at one time or another. Watch a man do his most common actions; those are indeed the things which will tell you the real character of a great man. Great occasions rouse even the lowest of human beings to some kind of greatness; but he alone is the really great man whose character is great always, the same wherever he may be.
Kind of awesome, eh? But, as I continued reading in a strip-mall Starbucks a few miles outside Malibu, I stumbled onto this passage:
Every religion or country (has) only one way of loving their own ideal and that is to hate every other ideal. Herein is the explanation of why the same man who is so lovingly attached to his own ideal of God, so devoted to his own ideal of religion, becomes a howling fanatic as soon as he sees or hears anything of any other ideal. This kind of love is somewhat like the canine instinct of guarding the master’s property from intruders; only the instinct of the dog is better than the reason of man for the dog never mistakes its master for an enemy in whatever dress he may come before it.
I wanted to stand up in the quiet Starbucks with its little pods of people tucked in to themselves and grab every one of them, to point to these words and shout: "That’s it! This is it, the answer – or at least part of the answer – as to why supposedly devout people hate other faiths and the people who believe them. “They” have to be wrong – or I am."

Could this be one idea, anyway, of why some people of faith find themselves wanting to fight with others of faith?

I wonder what would have happened if I had done it, if I had run all over the Starbucks reading this passage out loud? Polite staring. Uncomfortable rustling. Packing and leaving. Who wants to be confronted by a crazy woman while sipping a latte on a cold gray day? Not the sleek woman with hair pulled back and the yoga mat bag under her arm. Not the loners perched in front of their laptops and stained paper coffee cups. Not the weekend father with his thirteen year-old daughter who made the small round table between them look like a continent. Well, maybe them. At least they would have had something to talk about. But the truth of the matter is: along with being afraid of annoying strangers, I also worry about seeming stupid, about revealing just how little I know, especially when I get embarrassingly excited about learning something new only to find out it’s been obvious to everyone else for years.

But how much of my life have I not lived because I’ve been afraid of appearing stupid?

All I know is: I can’t care if I look gullible or stupid or credulous anymore. I must know why so many of the people whose planet I share, feel so threatened they see killing others as a reasonable, faith-based choice. I must find a way to feel some tiny part of their passionate belief, to see for myself how one might end up like that. And Swami Vivekananda’s idea – that we constantly mistake other’s beliefs as a threat to ours when they may simply be the same thing just in different garb – feels, at least, like the beginning of an answer.

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