Ajmer Dargah

Mint has been sending me on trips to various spots to write on “sacred food.” This week, it is Ajmer Dargah. What a sensual experience. I respond to scents and sounds. The enveloping scent of roses was amazing. You have to read it at the site for the full photo cum words experiences. Oh, I am taking photos for these pieces myself.

For Mint on Sunday here

Photos here

I am standing outside the main shrine of the Ajmer Dargah listening to a spirited group of qawwali singers perform. They voices are entreating; their eyes sincere, rising up to search for the divine. They sit cross-legged and pray, using their hands to express the strength of their feeling. They aspire towards rapture; to forget the self. They seek oneness with God– a quest worth undertaking; the only quest worth undertaking for some people. Non-believers though, have to begin with the rather somber question that crashes debates from the realm of the divine down to earth: what is God?

When you think about it, God is such an abstract concept, which is probably why humans gave labels and names when they began the discussion: Mohammed, Jesus, Mary, Kali, Hanuman, Durga, Buddha or Zarathustra. Only Hinduism has female Goddesses; the rest are men, most of who began as prophets and teachers before being converted into and worshipped as Gods. Are Sri Sri Ravishankar and Mata Amritanandamayi going to be the Gods of tomorrow? An uncomfortable thought.

Religion—all religions were an effort by early humans to wrap their head around this nebulous idea of the cosmic controller. He—or she– who has created this web of life that we all inhabit. When early humans confronted events that shocked, awe and confused them, they had to explain it somehow. A child gets hit in a road accident and dies. Why? Who can explain the timing of it? Why now? Why to this particular child? Religion, I am guessing, was the answer that early humans came up with when they got hit by the proverbial truck or the Paleolithic version thereof. Why did the lion kill my son—of all people? When he was such a great warrior? Why now, when he was making off with that eligible Homo sapien beauty in the neighbouring hunter-gatherer group? Questions that have no answer. Ergo, religion. Religion was—is—the human search for answers; a quest for truth; a way of explaining the happenings of the world, much like scientists do today– except now science is looking for alien life and cloning genomes; and religion has climbed down from its pioneering expedition into the soul and became an ‘opium for the people,’ to quote Karl Marx.

Most religions began with mysticism. One man goes into a cave or sits under a tree. He meditates; and gets visions that answer fundamental questions. He spreads these ideas to his followers. Over time, they get codified and formalized as a faith. One man’s interpretation of the answers that sprung from his subconscious resonates with countless people. They affiliate themselves with this idea and give it a name. Behold religion.

Music, dance and rituals are tools that most religions use to disseminate ideas to the masses. The acts of praying, singing and dancing help devotees connect with a higher power. Religious music, whether it is gospel or bhajan, springs from the same place and has the same goal: to connect with the divine. Sufi music does it better than most. The qawwali is one manifestation; the Mevlevi order is another. You may have heard of the Mevlevis. They are also called whirling dervishes; and they are unforgettable. A Japanese sensei told me that whirling was a way to center yourself and sync your soul with the universe. Try it. One hand reaches for the heavens; another reaches for the earth in a diagonal. And then you whirl—round and round—for several minutes or more. It is that easy; or that difficult. I once watched whirling dervishes in Konya, Turkey. It was among the most moving things I have ever seen. A line of men, clad in white robes, circling for a long time– time that extended out like their hands. They were in a trance and put us in one too. Although I didn’t know it then, there was a connection between the whirling dance I watched and the poetry of Rumi that I loved.

“The minute I heard my first love story,
I started looking for you, not knowing
how blind that was.
Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere.
They’re in each other all along.”

Rumi

Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī is perhaps Sufism’s most famous poet, thanks to numerous translations and Turkish writer, Elif Safak’s novel, The Forty Rules of Love. The novel tells the story of how Rumi became the student of Shams Tabrizi, a Persian Sufi dervish. When Rumi died, his son, Sultan Walad founded the splendid Mevlevi order. They have been dancing ever since.

“Dance, when you’re broken open.

Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off.

Dance in the middle of the fighting.

Dance in your blood.

Dance when you’re perfectly free.”

Rumi

Like the bhakti cult, the philosophy behind Sufism is the idea of tawhid, a complex Persian word that symbolizes the primal root; the foundation from which we all spring from. Sufism believes that we have become cut off from this primal connection to God. All human action—the whirling, the singing, the poetry— is an expression for the devotee’s longing to return to this root; to restore the connection. This is why the annual Urs, officially the death anniversary of a Sufi saint, is celebrated joyfully as a wedding anniversary. The logic is that death reconnected the saint’s soul with its primal root, with God.

The word Urs, comes from the Arabic word ‘uroos’ and it means ‘wedding.’ When a saint dies, as Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti did in Ajmer, he has achieved wisaal or the ultimate union with the beloved. Realize that they don’t say “union with God.” Instead, they view God as their beloved. This intimate, all-encompassing lover-like connection is what differentiates Sufism from its parent religion, Islam. William Chittick, a leading translator of Islamic texts who studied at the University of Tehran has described Sufism as the “interiorization and intensification of Islamic faith and practice.”

For a Hindu, it is easy to understand and access Sufism through its music and its tolerant, enveloping tenets. Indeed, millions of Hindus visit this shrine every year, clad in colourful saris and bright red bindis. “It is a Ganga Jamuna sanskriti here,” said a Hindu devotee, the Ganga referring to Hinduism and the Jamuna to Islam.

This then, is the distinctive beauty of this dargah. It is not just open to people of all faiths; it welcomes them. If you have a wish or mannat that you want fulfilled; a prayer that must reach God; an offering of thanks that you want to give, you are welcome here. And people do. They come from the four corners of the world, carrying baskets heavy with flowers–a ring of roses interspersed with marigolds— an aesthetic that is distinct to Indian places of worship. Multicolored flowers put together in an artistic way. The heavy scent of red roses fills the air.

Devotees bring nuts and fruits. They carry blankets and shawls to place on top of the tombstone. They tie strings with objects on a stick that extends across the empty cauldrons where food is cooked. The hanging objects offer clues to human frailties and wishes. There is a metal house, a cradle, a hand, a comb–each symbolizing a desire for a job, marriage, children, or wealth. People throw in money and rice grains into the empty cauldron. At the side of the cauldrons are metal containers filled with sacred food that has been cooked early this morning. The kesariabhat, as it is called, is orange and follows the usual recipe of broken wheat, sugar, ghee, and dried fruit, all stirred together for hours before distributing to the faithful. It is vegetarian, although legend has it that Emperor Shah Jahan mixed the meat of a Nilgai-deer that he had shot while hunting with the vegetarian food.

The dargah’s link with the Mogul emperors is close and traverses generations. It was Emperor Akbar, who ordered the first giant cauldron built. It is called Badi Degh (or Big Cauldron) and can cook a whopping amount of food. Akbar pledged to come to Ajmer on foot if he won the battle of Chittorgarh. When he won, he kept his promise and distributed food from the big cauldron. Some say that the big cauldron cooks 125 ‘mounds’ of rice, a number that is hard to fathom. Let’s just say that food from the big cauldron can feed about 15,000 people.

Not to be outdone, Akbar’s son, Jahangir ordered the construction of the smaller cauldron, called Choti Degh.   He ordered that this food be distributed to 5000 people, taking the first offering himself, after which his queen, Noor Jahan and the other women of his harem followed suit. This kind of largesse was typical of the empire building Mughals. Today, moguls of a different sort, from hedge fund managers to business magnates pay money to the Dargah to have food cooked and distributed. Typically, this happens during the Urs every day or to mark a special occasion.

Every place of worship, be it a church, mosque or temple, has a rhythm. It is both universal and distinctive. The ethos of a religious place emphasizes simplicity and purity when you approach the shrine. You wear your best silks when you approach the shrine, or you go as a simple person clad in white with minimal clothes. There is water so that you can wash up after your long pilgrimage. There are offerings that you can buy. At Ajmer, it is red roses, attar, nuts, and most importantly, the chaadar or blanket that you can lay on top of the tombstone as a mark of respect. Through these utilitarian tools, you access the divine. Every year, various world leaders send a chaadar during the Urs as a mark of respect. This year, it was Barack Obama’s turn and he sent an embroidered red chaadar via the US Embassy.

Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, the saint who is enshrined in this dargah was born in the Sistan region of Iran. His life followed the fairly standard trajectory of most great spiritual leaders. Pious family? Check. Interested in spirituality from a young age? Check. As a boy, he prayed and meditated instead of picking fruit from the famous Iranian orchards. Makes you wonder about future saints who are born in this era. If any child in our age has a spiritual calling, are they heeding it? Or are they playing Play Station 3 and other video games? The world might be losing the next Buddha or Khwaja to Candy Crush saga. Sad, isn’t it?

Moinuddin’s next experience is something I would have liked to have. While working in his orchard– which itself, is an experience not to be sniffed at, given the legendary quality of the melons of Iran— Moinuddin had a visitor. Being a well brought up child, he greeted the dervaish (spiritual man) properly by kissing his hands and gave him fruit. The dervaish, whose name was Sheikh Ibrahim Qandozi, was impressed by the pious nature of the boy. He took out some khul from his pocket. This is described as the dregs of sesame seeds after the oil is extracted. Some historians say that this was bread. Anyway, the dervaish put this piece into his mouth, chewed it a bit and then put it in Moinuddin’s mouth. The boy lost all connection with the current world and went into a mystical trance. This event caused the scales to fall from Moinuddin’s eyes, to paraphrase Bertie Wooster. He went into the divine realm and realized the true nature of things. I would have like to eat this sesame patty too.

After this experience, there was no turning back. Moinuddin left for Bukhara, then a great center of learning, where he finished his education. After that, it was onward to Samarkand to study philosophy, theology, and grammar. In Baghdad, he met a great Sufi Dervaish who became his guide and teacher for 20 years. It was here that Khwaja Moinuddin Chishty received the instruction to go to Hindustan or India.

Ajmer at the time was a great amalgam of many faiths. It was the pleasure resort of emperor Shah Jahan–a far cry from the dusty and gray town that it has become today. Khwaja Moinuddin Chishty set up his spiritual order using Ajmer as base. He became known as Garib Nawaz for the compassion with which he treated poor people. He spread Sufism throughout North India, gained many disciples and most importantly, established the Chishti order that continues to this day. His real achievement was to make his faith accessible to all.

Religions evolve through a somewhat contradictory impulse: by defining and differentiating themselves. It is one of the things that bother me about faith; any faith. You’d think that prayer or connection to the divine would make you see the world as one. Most religions advocate this notion of treating everyone as your brother or sister. Except that the deeper people go into religion, the more they seem to define themselves through ever-narrowing parameters, be it Sri Vaishnavism or Seventh Day Adventist. Religion doesn’t expand the self even though every great text advocates it. It causes a narrowing of boundaries in a sense so that you begin affiliating yourself with a Pentacostal order or a specific guru. You call yourself Sufi or Mahayana or Orthodox. You view other orders, even if they belong to the same religion with some amount of suspicion. “All religions are the same,” you say piously, while hobnobbing with other acolytes of the same order.

The relationship between what some call “mainstream Islam” and Sufism reflects this trend and is fraught in this way. Sufi practitioners emphasize that Sufism originated in Islam; that early Sufi thought was directly drawn from the Koran, except that it was internalized. Internalization is a word that comes up often in Sufism to explain its tolerance to all faiths and the use of song and dance in worship. The 12th century Muslim theologian Al Ghazali has a wonderful passage in his treatise, “The Alchemy of Happiness,” in a chapter titled ‘The use of dance and music as aids to religious life.” The fact he has to defend music and dance speaks to his desire to make Islam and Sufism compatible with one another, which leads to the conclusion that they were diverging, even as early as the 12th century.

In the chapter, Al Ghazali says, “The effect of music and dancing…fan into a flame whatever love is already dormant in the heart, whether it be earthly and sensual, or divine and spiritual.” Made me want to go out and dance. There is more that Al Ghazali defends. “As regards the erotic poetry which is recited in Sufi gatherings, and to which people sometimes make objection, we must remember that, when in such poetry mention is made of separation from or union with the beloved, the Sufi, who is an adept in the love of God, applies such expressions to separation from or union with Him.”

I am sorry to say this again and again but when and why did religions become so prudish? A few centuries ago, erotic sculpture and poetry was acceptable on the path towards God. What happened? When did we decide that God required seriousness? What happened to joy?

There is a lot of joy in the singing at the dargah. People sway in ecstasy; some, with tears rolling down their eyes. The whole atmosphere combines sensual bliss—the scent of flowers—with spiritual elevation. It is as faith should be, mixing the everyday with the elevated; the mundane with the divine; the senses and the soul.

I didn’t taste the kesaria bhat though. It was Ramzan when I went. Nobody was eating anything during the day. It seemed inappropriate for me to do so, even though there were several enticing containers full of them.

I was disappointed not to taste the food. It was a sign, I told myself. The women in my family use this word when they contemplate visits to temples. The God or Goddess has to “call” you, they will say. Or call me back, in this case, I thought– to taste the food during Urs.

A surprising twist emerged as I exited the dargah. My guide was waiting outside. He wanted to know if he could hitch a ride to Jaipur with me. His reason epitomized the Indian web of relationships. “My daughter-in-law’s brother’s wedding happened a few days ago and my sammdhi (the inlaws) have invited me for food after a puja. You like dal, bhaati, churma, don’t you?” he offered as explanation.

Two hours later, we drove up to a small flat on the outskirts of Jaipur. Inside were about 20 people, all colorfully dressed in saris. In quick order, plates were produced. We were the last two eat. They gave us a stainless steel plate filled with spiced dal; the bhaati, which was a round ball of cooked wheat dough; and churma, a sweet mixture. There was a piquant pickle and some water. We ate quietly. Men came up with additional food to serve. This is what I have noticed in traditional Indian homes. People accord the food the girth and seriousness that it is due. In my ancestral village in Palghat, you’d sit on the floor and eat from banana leaves, pretty much in silence. The focus was on the food; and in the eating. The servers would watch and add dishes quietly. This was how we ate the dish in Jaipur. It was delicious, although my driver told me later that he had eaten better versions of the dish. “You need to cook it on a slow fire, using firewood and cow-dung patties,” he said. “The scent of smoke gets infused into the dish. That is when the flavours bloom and take on a smoky hue.”

At the home, our hosts entertained us with questions about me and answers about them. After a few minutes of whispering, they asked a simple question: “What caste are you?”

I paused mid-mouth. Why were they asking me this question? Was it because I was dressed, all in black? Being South Indian, I didn’t have any context about the Ajmer Dargah, except what I had read. In my attempt to blend in, I had decided to wear all black to the Dargah. It was only after I arrived that I realized how unnecessary this self-imposed dress code was. I could have worn my bright red Kanjivaram wedding sari and still not have stood out.

Once I got that misunderstanding out of the way, I considered options. Call me naïve, but I think India should move beyond the caste conversation. But this was not the time for pseudo-intellectual if well-thought-out principles. So I answered my hosts. They were delighted because they belonged to the same caste too, they said. “We are Pandas,” they said. “We are the caste that does all the rituals at the Jagannath Puri temple.”

I concentrated on the food. It was delicious.

After the meal, my host took me through all the rooms were many women were engaged in rocking babies to sleep, chatting with each other, or combing hair. I asked them if they would pose for photographs. It might get published, I warned. They weren’t fazed. They came to see me off at the gate and stood in line for a photo that reflected the glorious colors of the land.

As for the dal, bhaati, churma, I felt like asking them to pack me some but I didn’t. I would just have to go back. For the kesariabhat and good old fashioned dal, bhaati, churma, made in the village with cow-dung patties and smoke.

END

U. Chicago Magazine

Message from my dear friend Tommy (Tomas Haendler) who has known my eldest since she was born.

Hi Guys. Just came back from a week at the beach and among the reading stuff I take I reviewed the University of Chicago magazine article on Wendy Doniger’s writings on Hinduism, and surprise, surprise…. there she was.
Shoba’s comments all over it.

Link here

Very polarizing issue. I still get reader letters saying that I am wrong to defend Ms. Doniger. Below is a recent one.

——— Forwarded message ———-
From: ‘Nathu Ram Verma’ via Ideas QZ
Date: Tue, Jul 15, 2014 at 1:08 AM
Subject: doniger’s book Hindus: An Alternative history
To: “ideas@qz.com”

I read your column, Shoba, on the above. I could not digest it. I am also reading this book, now at page 252. I am not tired. I will finish the book. My objection is not about freedom of expression or thought, but the larger question of sensitivity of billions of people. Depiction of Rama and Sita in this book, to say the least, was obnoxious. From which version of Ramayan Wendy has taken details, I do not know. From her references, I gathered they were mostly Westerners. People have sensitivity, right or wrong. To violate it in such utter abundance is morally wrong. Do not tell me about scholarly/ academic / witty/ and what else approach. The story of Rama is venerated in many southeast Asian countries. In Thailand near the Buddha shrine, there is a Rama temple.
You call Wendy brilliant. Yes, but brilliance is to be tempered with wisdom.
I may be wrong. But I do not think Indians mock Christianity in the name of scholarship or otherwise, although there is a lot of bull… in it. To put it simply Jesus was a bastard. How Wendy will like it ?
Since you do not know me. I should tell I am not exactly illiterate and I dislike all organized religions. But Wendy is beyond me.
I do not know whether you reply to your readers’ comments. If you do, pl enlighten me with your wisdom at (REMOVED)

The Sexes– again

The thrill of being a beat reporter at a newspaper is to turn in copy and have it up in a few hours. Column writing takes away that immediacy but offers carte blanche with respect to voice and content– that is its thrill. I write my Mint column about two weeks in advance and The National column about ten days in advance. Last night at about 8 PM, I saw this piece about the Dalai Lama. Pitched it to Eleanor, my editor at The Sexes. She approved it within minutes. Wrote it in two hours. She edited it in an hour. And it is up. Felt like a reporter– although I didn’t go out to report, which Professor Blood said is what real reporters do.

Should read Carol Gilligan’s work. Hadn’t known about it at all.

The piece is here and below. The comments are interesting.

The Dalai Lama Says Female Leaders Are More Compassionate … Hmm

“If the circumstances are such that a female Dalai Lama is more useful, then automatically a female Dalai Lama will come,” he said.
SHOBA NARAYANJUN 13 2013, 2:09 PM ET

Tibet's exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama greets the audience as he arrives at a talk titled "Beyond Religion: Ethics, Values and Wellbeing" in Boston
Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters

As a Hindu, I often think that if I wanted to choose another religion to follow, it would be Buddhism—and not just because I might get to hug Richard Gere. The Dalai Lama’s recent comments in Australia about how his successor could be a woman only added light to my eyes, and made me exhale into a perfect Lotus pose.

Speaking at a press conference, the exiled 78-year-old leader, suggested that women were better equipped to lead the world in the current time. “If the circumstances are such that a female Dalai Lama is more useful, then automatically a female Dalai Lama will come,” he said.

His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso was then asked about the bitter gender debate that is permeating Australian politics. Prime Minister Julia Gillard has been accusing her opposition Liberal Party of being sexist and removing women from the political sphere. Earlier this week, a menu for a Liberal Party fundraiser was leaked on social media. It carried the line: “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail: small breasts, huge thighs and a big red box.” The chef who created the menu called it a joke that never made it out of the kitchen. He said that the opposition leaders had not seen the menu. Ms. Gillard called the menu “grossly sexist and offensive.” The menu has gone viral and evinced reactions all over Australia. “Even when women ARE at the table, we’re still on the menu,” tweeted a woman in response.

The Dalai Lama responded to the gender question by referring to rising economic inequality around the globe. The world, he said, needs leaders with compassion. And in his mind, that means the world needs more female leaders.

“In that respect, biologically, females have more potential,” he said. “Females have more sensitivity about others’ wellbeing … In my own case, my father, very short temper. On a few occasions I also got some beatings. But my mother was so wonderfully compassionate.”

This is where I lost him. Are women truly more compassionate than men? In responding to the sexist saga that has Australia all a-twitter, is the Dalai Lama himself being sexist?

(This is the problem with us feminists: we bristle. People pay us a compliment—heck, the Dalai Lama pays women a compliment—and some of us, me included, take it amiss. He calls us compassionate and we call him sexist. But even if you take the Dalai Lama—given as he is to simple, playful remarks—out of the equation, the question remains: are women more compassionate than men? )

Research is both fascinating and conflicting on whether women are more compassionate than men. In 1958, Harvard psychologist, Lawrence Kohlberg wrote his dissertation on what would come to be called Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development. In it, he posited that males are morally superior to females because they scored higher on tests that measured impartial justice and equality. His research was considered groundbreaking at the time and continues to be widely cited. Kohlberg’s conclusions were challenged by his student, Carol Gilligan, who suggested that morality and ethics are based on gender and culture. Gilligan’s research posits that ethics follow two parallel paths: the justice perspective and the care perspective (no prizes for guessing which sex has which). In her 1982 book In a Different Voice, described by Harvard University Press as the “little book that started a revolution,” Gilligan suggests that people with the justice perspective (mostly men) base their ethical decisions on impartiality, fairness, rights, and justice. Those with the care perspective base their ethics on care, compassion, and empathy. Gilligan says that most people will base their choices on either one of these perspectives even if they are aware of both.

Other research suggests that women are socially compassionate but morally traditional. A 2005 study, for example, found that women would support legislation that would reduce income differences but would also oppose the legalization of marijuana. Chinese martial arts movies would have you believe that it is all a matter of perception. Men are compassionate but are not taught to show it. Instead, they are encouraged to hold it all in even if they can empathize with the other party. Last year, British ethicist Roger Steare, who has administered the “Moral DNA test” to over 60,000 volunteers in 200 countries, concluded that women make decisions based on how they impact others—”which tends to produce better decisions.” Men, concluded Steare, are more self-interested.

Despite all the research, or perhaps I should say, in spite of all the research, what is important is the qualities of the leader in question. So yes, let us advocate for more female leaders because that is what is fair. But we should also be advocating for more compassionate leaders, whatever their gender.

SHOBA NARAYAN is the author of Return to India: A Memoir.

jojoabc123 • 6 hours ago
So basically good leaders should be elected and not influenced by quotas based on gender politics
1 1 •Reply•Share ›

notbobcousy • 6 hours ago
This is the problem with us feminists: we bristle. People pay us a compliment—heck, the Dalai Lama pays women a compliment—and some of us, me included, take it amiss. He calls us compassionate and we call him sexist. But even if you take the Dalai Lama—given as he is to simple, playful remarks—out of the equation, the question remains: are women more compassionate than men?
I think most feminists don’t bristle at ideas like women are more compassionate. I often hear feminists say things like “if women ran the world there’d be no wars”, or wax on about the supposed positive virtues of women, and I hear little pushback from feminists against such statements. In the case of the Dalai Lama, these comments will probably go unnoticed by people who would write volumes on it if the Dalai Lama said men were better in some way.

It’s also worth pointing out the Dalai Lama is a feminist, and I guarantee that in saying women were more compassionate, he saw himself as making a feminist statement. Stephanie Meyer recently said she was a feminist because she thought the world would be a better place with women, and while people criticized her, it wasn’t for that statement but because people felt her novels don’t reflect feminist ideas.

To me, what he said is a feminist statement. I just am skeptical of it (at the least, if you think women are better at men at being compassionate, you oughta conclude that men are better on some other personality traits. I see it as nature vs nurture, and if you agree with the studies saying women are inherently more compassionate, there’s probably similar studies ascribing positive traits to men over women. But many people, feminists included, seem to agree with such statements when it’s something positive about women, disagree when it’s positive about men).
2 •Reply•Share ›

CJ Anton • 4 hours ago
What a crock. Compassion wasn’t needed before now? We only just recently discovered this fabulous compassion allegedly possessed (mostly) by women? Very solid of the DL to say it would be cool with him if, thousands of years in, a woman got to take the top job in Buddhism. Good luck convincing the monks.
2 •Reply•Share ›

CAinDC • 4 hours ago
You really are stressing the age thing! “Speaking at a press conference, the exiled 78-year-old leader, who is 78, ”
1 •Reply•Share ›

Eubie • an hour ago
Perhaps it would have been more relevant to reference the economic research on altruism, which shows that men tend to be more generous when generosity is less costly, while women tend to be more generous when the costs of generosity are higher [http://econ.ucsd.edu/~jandreon…] . And, this research result is further muddied when expectations of payback are factored in, leading to a finding that men and women are about equally altruistic [http://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de…]. The problem with the Moral DNA test is that it involves self-reporting, notorious for its strain on reliability.

New York Times

The editor of Room for Debate got in touch and asked me to write this piece

Respect the Sacred, Ignore the Sexism

Shoba Narayan
Shoba Narayan is a columnist and the author of two books: “Monsoon Diary” and “Return to India.
Updated January 8, 2013, 3:42 PM
I am a Hindu. I love my religion’s glorious and imaginative epic stories, in which seers chose the moment they die and goddesses kill the bad guy while riding a tiger. Within my family, I have Hindu role models who teach me how to conduct the pujas (prayers) and celebrate Hindu holidays.
That said, I still have vexing issues with certain aspects of Hinduism. Like most religions, it is patriarchal–something that the feminist in me deeply resents–and its rituals, though beautiful, can be tedious. But at the end of the day, the mantras, chanting, yoga and other Hindu traditions are what I know and cherish…and what I want to share with my children…but in a Hinduism-lite way.

I tell my daughters that religions are products of a certain era; they have outdated rules.

I believe that raising children within the broad precepts of a religion is good for them. Faith grounds them and gives them part of their identity. My hope is that it will help them later in life when life throws monkey-wrenches at them. I hope that chanting the mantras that they learned at home will give them the strength and resilience to deal with difficulties. Studies have shown that faith helps to preserve relationships, and enhance longevity, health and happiness.
Although Hinduism is an easy religion to follow—we don’t have to keep kosher or go on pilgrimages, for example–there are some constraints that continue to make me uncomfortable as the mother of two daughters. Sons have to cremate fathers, for instance, and mantras like the Rudram, a hymn in praise of Lord Shiva, are supposed to be chanted only by men.
Such sexist rules anger me. I combat them through disobedience. And I try not to expose my daughters to them. They don’t know, for example, that they are not supposed to chant the Rudram. They’ve certainly heard women in our community chant it enough times (and me attempt to chant it in bits and pieces). As for sons being in charge of cremating the parents, my daughters, at 16 and 11, are far too young to ponder this. Instead, we have tangential discussions. I tell my daughters that Hinduism–and indeed all religions—are products of a certain era. They all contain rules that are no longer relevant. They need to be reinterpreted to suit the times and our lives.
I want my girls to be strong women capable of anything. I want them to imbibe a faith that gives them strength but is also flexible enough to accommodate their dreams and circumstances. For now, Hinduism will do.

Yoga Journal

About Vishnu in the Yoga Journal

Super Man

Vishnu lives in luxury, but this Hindu god will abandon his opulent ways to take human form and save the world from evil.

By Shoba Narayan

SO05_75a.jpg

In Indian films known as “god movies,” Vishnu and his consort Lakshmi, the pale-skinned goddess of wealth, are shown living in absurdly luxurious surroundings, wearing golden crowns, glittering jewelry, and silky robes, and surrounded by clouds of fragrant incense.

But Vishnu is known as the preserver of the good, and in keeping with that role, he repeatedly assumes human form and goes forth to rid the world of evil. The most famous of his incarnations are Rama, a devout and dutiful prince, and Krishna, a born prankster and the revealer of the profound teachings of the Bhagavad Gita.

Rama, the hero of the great Indian epic poem the Ramayana, epitomizes the virtues of filial obedience, loyalty, and honesty. When his own father is tricked into banishing him, Rama utters no protest and continues to serve the full term of his exile even though his father dies long before its end. In return, Rama commands extreme loyalty—from his wife, Sita, who follows him into exile and willingly undergoes trial by fire to prove she has remained pure while kidnapped by another man; from his brother Lakshmana, who leaves his own wife to accompany Rama; from the monkey god, Hanuman, who spends his life in Rama’s service; and, to this day, from legions of Hindu devotees all across India. Mahatma Gandhi died uttering the name of Rama, and in North India, a common greeting is “Ram Ram,” instead of “Hello.”

Mischievous Krishna is Rama’s opposite. He’s usually up to no good, whether enlisting his pals to help steal the butter pots stored high in his mother’s kitchen; hiding the clothes of the gopis, the cow-herding girls, as they bathe naked in the river; or playing sensual music on his flute, driving the gopis faint with longing. Despite these tendencies, Krishna is the teacher who reveals the lessons of the Bhagavad Gita. Exploring some of the most difficult of spiritual issues, including the nature of reality and humanity as well as the central problems of human existence, the Gita remains one of the most important books for any yogi as well as one of the world’s great spiritual classics.

The idea of karma yoga—the yoga of right action—is a centerpiece of Krishna’s message in the Gita. He teaches the importance of striving to do the right thing simply because it is the right thing, not because of the spiritual merit it might bring. Like all of Vishnu’s incarnations, Krishna reminds us to do our best to make the world a better place.

Yoga Journal

Yoga Journal

Parvati Power

This Hindu goddess, consort of Shiva, proves that dignity and smarts prevail.

By Shoba Narayan

Parvati is one face of the divine female energy, often called Devi (the shining one) or Shakti (power), that many Indians worship as the power above all deities. The goddess is personified in many forms, including Saraswati, goddess of learning and consort of Brahma, and Lakshmi, goddess of fortune and consort of Vishnu.

Parvati came into being when a female demon was terrorizing the world, smug in the knowledge that only a son of Shiva could kill her. But Shiva had withdrawn from the world to practice ascetics high in the Himalayas. He wouldn’t even look at a woman, much less sire a son.

In an effort to woo Shiva, Shakti, the great mother goddess, took the form of Parvati. Shiva scorned her until she engaged in austerities of her own. Impressed, Shiva accepted her as his wife, and they produced a son who destroyed the demon.

Smart and curious, Parvati questioned Shiva about the Vedas and other sacred texts, whose secrets he whispered into her ears. But the couple also had their spats, one of which resulted in Ganesha: Parvati was frustrated that none of Shiva’s ganas (attendants) would swear allegiance to her, so she created a boy and instructed him to let no one enter her home. When Shiva arrived, the boy blocked his way, so the god chopped off his head. Parvati was sick with grief. To appease her, Shiva fused the head of an elephant onto the boy’s body and breathed life back into it—and named him Ganesha, “leader of the ganas.”

Today, Parvati is the epitome of determination and discipline. She refuses to let Shiva’s scorn intimidate her and doesn’t take no for an answer. Instead, she wins with grace and dignity, something we can all aspire to.

therefore, all sages worship him. He is there before anything else was there in the world. Whomever Narada approached could not give him an answer. Therefore, finally he approached Lord Shiva and asked this question. Lord Shiva replied that he mediate upon his guru. Narada satisfied and went back and told to other gods that he got his answer. Then the other gods asked Narada- who is Lord Shiva’s guru? The sage, then only realized that he did not get the answer to his question so far. So he went back to the Lord and praised him. ‘O Lord’, you are above everything. You can destroy the whole world and can create it back even better way within seconds. So, please be kind enough to understand all my doubts instead of asking you silly questions. Then, Lord Shiva replied with a smile. ‘Oh Narada, The person you and the entire world worship as their mother is my guru’. Narada surprised and replied; But, she is your wife? Then Lord Shiva said; Yes, that is the reason why she is my guru. Then he showed Narada his mediating form which we normally see in pictures. So, Narada saw Parvathi as Kundalini rising across Shiva’s spine and going across his neck and realized the reason why he is called ‘Nataraja’. Finally, he saw Parvathi at Shiva’s Crown Chakra in woman form just like the universal mother and water falling out of her mouth to feed the entire living beings. Then, Lord Shiva told to Narada: ‘Oh! Great sage, Narada, please spread the knowledge to the entire world that when one respect and believe their wife to the most, their Kundalini will start aligning with her and they will have the perfect married life. Then only, she will yield to him willfully’.

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Yoga Journal

Thanks, Naomi, for sending me these links in the Yoga Journal.  Wrote these pieces a long time ago.  Didn’t know they existed.

    • Quite Contrary

      Kali is both a fierce warrior and a compassionate mother goddess, reflecting the range of behavior available to us all.

      By Shoba Narayan

      Many of the female deities in Hindu mythology are powerful and full of contradictions. The goddesses Kali and Durga are perfect examples of this: They mix fierce destructive power with maternal protectiveness.

      Durga, often shown riding a tiger, is one of the names given to the consort of Shiva. When one of their sons was battling a demon, Durga came to her child’s aid by assuming the form of Kali, a fearsome, bloodthirsty figure with a long, protruding tongue. The demon’s power allowed every drop of his blood to turn into a hundred copies of himself as soon as it hit the ground, but Kali’s tongue caught each drop in midair, and the demon and all his copies were vanquished.

      The victorious Kali danced on the corpse-strewn battlefield, adorned herself with skulls, and, fueled by blood and gore, ran amok, wreaking havoc on the three worlds—the heavens, the earth, and the underworld.

      To stop her, Shiva turned into a corpse on the battlefield. When Kali stepped on him, she stopped short, fearing she’d slain her husband in her rage. As she paused, Shiva became an infant and began crying. Kali instantly picked up and suckled the baby Shiva, transforming from a fierce warrior to a benevolent mother goddess. This story illustrates how Kali’s destructive power can bring about good, though it needs balance and direction.

      Portrayals of Kali are symbolic in many ways. She is depicted as black-skinned, which means she’s without form: infinite and changeless. Her girdle of hands looks horrific, but it suggests the way for devotees to free themselves from the cycle of death and rebirth; our hands can free us from the karmic wheel. Her garland of 50 skulls signifies the 50 letters of the Sanskrit alphabet, the destroyers of ignorance. Like Shiva, Kali has three eyes, meaning she knows the past, present, and future.

      An incredibly powerful female icon, Kali is full of contradictions. She’s naked but not vulnerable, motherly yet unafraid of battle and blood. She’s a warrior but a compassionate one; she brings death but also gives life. Like Kali, we’re all capable of fierce opposition to evil as well as tenderness and compassion.

      Kali is both a fierce warrior and a compassionate mother goddess, reflecting the range of behavior available to us all.

      By Shoba Narayan

      Many of the female deities in Hindu mythology are powerful and full of contradictions. The goddesses Kali and Durga are perfect examples of this: They mix fierce destructive power with maternal protectiveness.

      Durga, often shown riding a tiger, is one of the names given to the consort of Shiva. When one of their sons was battling a demon, Durga came to her child’s aid by assuming the form of Kali, a fearsome, bloodthirsty figure with a long, protruding tongue. The demon’s power allowed every drop of his blood to turn into a hundred copies of himself as soon as it hit the ground, but Kali’s tongue caught each drop in midair, and the demon and all his copies were vanquished.

      The victorious Kali danced on the corpse-strewn battlefield, adorned herself with skulls, and, fueled by blood and gore, ran amok, wreaking havoc on the three worlds—the heavens, the earth, and the underworld.

      To stop her, Shiva turned into a corpse on the battlefield. When Kali stepped on him, she stopped short, fearing she’d slain her husband in her rage. As she paused, Shiva became an infant and began crying. Kali instantly picked up and suckled the baby Shiva, transforming from a fierce warrior to a benevolent mother goddess. This story illustrates how Kali’s destructive power can bring about good, though it needs balance and direction.

      Portrayals of Kali are symbolic in many ways. She is depicted as black-skinned, which means she’s without form: infinite and changeless. Her girdle of hands looks horrific, but it suggests the way for devotees to free themselves from the cycle of death and rebirth; our hands can free us from the karmic wheel. Her garland of 50 skulls signifies the 50 letters of the Sanskrit alphabet, the destroyers of ignorance. Like Shiva, Kali has three eyes, meaning she knows the past, present, and future.

      An incredibly powerful female icon, Kali is full of contradictions. She’s naked but not vulnerable, motherly yet unafraid of battle and blood. She’s a warrior but a compassionate one; she brings death but also gives life. Like Kali, we’re all capable of fierce opposition to evil as well as tenderness and compassion.

      Kali is both a fierce warrior and a compassionate mother goddess, reflecting the range of behavior available to us all.

      By Shoba Narayan

      Many of the female deities in Hindu mythology are powerful and full of contradictions. The goddesses Kali and Durga are perfect examples of this: They mix fierce destructive power with maternal protectiveness.

      Durga, often shown riding a tiger, is one of the names given to the consort of Shiva. When one of their sons was battling a demon, Durga came to her child’s aid by assuming the form of Kali, a fearsome, bloodthirsty figure with a long, protruding tongue. The demon’s power allowed every drop of his blood to turn into a hundred copies of himself as soon as it hit the ground, but Kali’s tongue caught each drop in midair, and the demon and all his copies were vanquished.

      The victorious Kali danced on the corpse-strewn battlefield, adorned herself with skulls, and, fueled by blood and gore, ran amok, wreaking havoc on the three worlds—the heavens, the earth, and the underworld.

      To stop her, Shiva turned into a corpse on the battlefield. When Kali stepped on him, she stopped short, fearing she’d slain her husband in her rage. As she paused, Shiva became an infant and began crying. Kali instantly picked up and suckled the baby Shiva, transforming from a fierce warrior to a benevolent mother goddess. This story illustrates how Kali’s destructive power can bring about good, though it needs balance and direction.

      Portrayals of Kali are symbolic in many ways. She is depicted as black-skinned, which means she’s without form: infinite and changeless. Her girdle of hands looks horrific, but it suggests the way for devotees to free themselves from the cycle of death and rebirth; our hands can free us from the karmic wheel. Her garland of 50 skulls signifies the 50 letters of the Sanskrit alphabet, the destroyers of ignorance. Like Shiva, Kali has three eyes, meaning she knows the past, present, and future.

      An incredibly powerful female icon, Kali is full of contradictions. She’s naked but not vulnerable, motherly yet unafraid of battle and blood. She’s a warrior but a compassionate one; she brings death but also gives life. Like Kali, we’re all capable of fierce opposition to evil as well as tenderness and compassion.

    • READER COMMENTS

      K-km YEP:
      “mix fierce destructive power with maternal protectiveness”
      dat’s what I am, but WASTED a so much of my life FEELING GUILTY about the CONTRADICTORY nature of me; little did I know:
      I AM GODDESS KALI
      kali this is so weird. my name is kali and yes, i am young, 13 to be exact but my mom reads this magazine and showed it to me. she was freaked out about how close this resembled me. i can say no to anyone and stand up for myself and my friends. i was coming on here to find the article to put on my myspace, my friends would agree with my mom. :)

Beliefnet

I used to be the Hinduism columnist for Beliefnet when it began years ago. When it got acquired, I even got stock options for which. They have a page for me here but most of my articles are archived under the Hinduism banner.
Beliefnet’s Search page which has all my stories.

Here are some of the topics and links.

The Meaning of a Guru

I have to admit that I have trouble with the whole ‘guru’ thing. Guru means teacher in Sanskrit, but it connotes much more than that. A guru is someone who removes your ignorance, without whom you cannot attain the knowledge you are seeking.
Delaying Puberty with Yoga.

Pop Karma: My Name is Earl TV show.

Ritual Initiation: Varalakshmi Puja

Rama: Beloved Avatar

Saying a Traditional Goodbye

Yoga as Middle Path

Loving with no strings attached

The Incomparable M.S. Subbulakshmi

Decoding Destiny with the I-Ching

Incarnations of the Mother Goddess

May Hanuman be with you

Soy: soul food or spiritual sham

Stop Building Hindu Temples

Bah, Humbug!

Confessions of a Closet Vegetarian

Fashionably Devout

Just Say No to Turkey Propaganda: Hindu Thanksgiving Recipes

End to Passive Resistance
Indian or Hindu: One, Both or Neither?

Karma’s a Drag
– Movement Meditation
Shortcut to Spirituality

Stripping the Soul out of Yoga

The Vasthu Vibe

Tuning Out the Teletubbies
Vegetarian Nirvana