Tag Archives: Hinduism

Intersectionality – a personal essay

“Intersectionality” is getting lots of buzz. (See Chronicle of Higher Education, for example. Google it, for more than you ever want to know.)

I stepped into an intersection yesterday. Not in a street, but at my usual place-of-yoga, the local Hindu Temple. I have a long, comfortable relationship with the Temple. They offer yoga in return for a $5 donation. I speak well of them in the community.

Yesterday the regular yoga space looked different. The amount of artwork on the walls had been doubled, and two beautiful “altars” had been arranged, decked with candles and floral arrangements. What?! I had never seen this degree of formality at the Temple. We learned that a Vietnamese group was holding a meeting or celebration. Preparations had been made. Are there Hindus in Vietnam? I don’t think so. My guess is that the group is Buddhist.

Wikipedia tells me that Buddhism is the dominant religion in Vietnam, carrying with it strong veins of Taoism and Confucianism originating in China. I’m not sure what script I was seeing on the new posters in the Temple. Possibly a version of Sanskrit, but it didn’t match the flowing script seen around the Temple.

The Vietnamese event was not set up in the sacred part of the Temple, with the God images. I couldn’t tell if the human figures on the Vietnamese posters correspond in any way to the Hindu deities, or whether they are intended to be divine. I have so many questions!

So many stories waiting to be told. The world comes to my neighborhood!

Kundalini Yoga – Further Reflections

I’ve decided to write a bit more about the two barriers to my further progress along the path of Kundalini yoga. If you read my recent post (March 17), you know what they are – reincarnation and the role of the guru.

I don’t believe in reincarnation. Why? First, no evidence. Nothing has ever happened in my life that requires reincarnation in order to be explained. Second, it’s not the “simplest explanation”, and I operate on the general notion that the “simplest explanation” is often correct. To me, the “simplest explanation” is that consciousness resides in our bodies and disappears with the dissolution of the body. Not comforting, but simple.

That said, is there a problem with believing in reincarnation? Yes, and it shows up in the book Kundalini. The author repeatedly asserts that our current lives reflect the problems and errors of our past lives. So if, in your current life, you are subject to poverty, injustice, disease and misfortune, it’s because of prior sins. If you are good (charitable, devout, austere) you will be born into an advantaged, Brahmin family where you will get the spiritual training that may make it possible to step off the wheel of reincarnation and achieve enlightenment. So charity is a virtue, but the problems of the poor are really their own fault. Great argument for the status quo!

I had read of low caste Hindus converting to Buddhism because the (officially illegal) caste system caused them so much misery. It is no longer legal to discriminate against the Dalit caste labeled as “untouchable”, but old patterns of behavior die hard. A quick Google search confirmed my suspicions – conversions on this basis continue. From a blog post (2010): “Buddhism means I can simply say I am not a Hindu. I do not have a caste.”

So to me, a fundamental belief in reincarnation is a problem. I’m well aware that “my” contemporary American culture has its heavy burden of prejudice and discrimination, and scores of serious social problems, but I don’t feel that I should go seeking enlightenment “elsewhere”.

And why is the need for a “guru” a problem? For me, it just isn’t going to happen! People my age just don’t become devotees. I’ve seen good teachers and leaders go bad. I’m not trusting. I don’t have a priest or minister or even an elder. I rely on relatives and friends, and the occasional carefully chosen professional.

One aspect of the guru/student relationship that might be a problem would be secrecy. If a teacher is imparting “higher knowledge”, are they asking you not to share it? I would find that unacceptable.

This does NOT mean that I don’t appreciate a good teacher! At this point, I have THREE yoga teachers. All women. Each is different – very different! I value those three relationships very much.

“Kundalini” by Vibhakar Pandya

Publisher – Shree Siddhayog Sadhan Mandal. 148 pages.

It’s hard to figure out how to write about this book, because it is different from any other book I own. It was written in Gujarati, one of the languages of India, and evidently translated into English by someone whose English was very limited. Editing and proof reading would appear to have been minimal. It’s the publishing equivalent of “folk art”, which is defined as art produced by someone with no formal training in art.

My copy of Kundalini carries a publication date of 2003 and indicates 1000 copies were printed, so it is a rarity. There’s a recent sticker inside telling me how to find a local meditation group, with a phone number and (!) web site address. I’m very grateful for this contact information, as I am considering increasing my practice of meditation, now limited to whatever a yoga teacher directs in the two or three classes I attend each week.

Within the book is information about buying a mat to use for yoga or meditation, a long list of books for sale (most available only in Gujarati) and information about a magazine. Cassette tapes are also offered.

I’m sure I could track down this author on line (and lord knows what I will find!), but before doing this, here are my impressions: This book is foreign. It comes from an ancient culture so different from my own that I feel uncertain about every word I read. Even when I understand the words on the page, I’ve no confidence that they were translated accurately, or that they may not have, say, three alternate meanings to which I have no key. It is almost incomprehensible. “Kundalini” seems to be a form of energy (strong but dangerous?), a location in the body and also a goddess. In many (most?) people, it is latent, sleeping. If it wakes up without “guidance” it is dangerous. It can bring you to enlightenment.

The list of signs of awakening Kundalini (90 items) includes manifestations ranging from the trivial (yawning during meditation) to the alarming (the whole body starts flapping or fluttering). By western standards, much of this looks like bodily disease or mental illness.

There are several assumptions built into this book. One is the belief in reincarnation. Another is that spiritual growth is entirely dependent on having a devoted master/student relationship with a teacher or guru. Both of these are problematic for me, so my further growth in the path of Kundalini based meditation will be limited.

There’s another barrier between me and this spiritual path. I don’t wish to engage in cultural appropriation. This is a term used to describe a situation where someone borrows too extensively (and perhaps insensitively) from a culture not their own. For example, consider the middle class white American who participates in a few (Native American) sweat lodges and then starts to lead them. Native people may resent having their sacred ceremonials reduced to income producing workshops. I’ve heard both sides of these arguments, and I personally feel that my understanding of Hinduism will always be incomplete and my spiritual growth may best be served by staying closer to “home”, that is, somewhere within the Judeo-Christian tradition.

That said, I can hardly express how grateful I am to the Vaikunth Hindu Jain Temple, where I take yoga classes and have occasional opportunities to learn about Hinduism and eat wonderful food. I’ll never be a candidate for membership, but I’m honored to be a guest/participant in the life of a local cultural treasure!

“Kismet, Karma and Kamasutra – Survive India or Die Laughing” by Narendra Simone

Attention, yoga buddies! Don’t read this book if you are sentimental about India. In fact, don’t even read this review. There is absolutely no yoga in the book.

Narendra Simone is an Indian who spent most of his adult life in other parts of the world, then returned, mid career, as an executive for a joint venture company. He is a dual national (a global citizen!), deriving Canadian citizenship through his second wife, his companion in the adventures described in this book.

Simone describes India as “the land of mystique, ancient culture and culinary delight”, which he then translates into “intense corruption, complicated bureaucracy and severe stomach cramps”. He also quotes the saying “A black man’s misery is a white man’s adventure”. In other words, he is NOT happy to be back. So he plays the whole thing for laughs, and there are many.

To be a returned Indian executive is to be a “mark” for every hustler in the country (as you are assumed to be ridiculously wealth), and to be constantly told that the reason you don’t understand the most preposterous decisions, explanations and situations is that you have lost your culture and become contaminated.

Simone’s description of a visit to an Ayervedic doctor is hilarious. The doctor assured him that since he had several siblings who died young, he would undoubtedly live for 100 years.

Simone and his family managed to have a good deal of fun along the way, but his parting words are “The only way to cope when your company offers you a position to work in India is don’t…Honest, take it from me. Just say no.” And he returned to Canada!

Yoga, India and Me

I will be posting about several books on the subject of yoga, and a few weeks ago I wrote about the book “Leaving India”. Here’s the disclosure statement to explain why yoga and India are important to me.

I was introduced to yoga in my early 20s, when someone showed me a version of the Sun Salutation and told me it was a cure for insomnia. Yoga was not mentioned. Maybe ten years later, I started attending the occasional yoga class – a few sessions in adult education, etc. I enjoyed it, but never managed to arrange for any continuity. So I didn’t make progress. Sometimes I wandered off in other directions, like tai chi, or got my exercise from an early morning TV show.

Maybe 15 years ago, a local Hindu group bought a large warehouse a few miles from my house and renovated it for use as their Temple. The first time I visited was a week or two after September 11, 2001. The Temple hosted an interfaith prayer service in it’s social hall, and passages about peace from several cultures were read. Candles were lighted. Afterwards, I wandered into the small sanctuary, the sacred part of the Temple. I removed my shoes and stepped into a room containing at least twenty statues of gods, of differing sizes, all elaborately dressed in bright costumes. Temple members wandered in an out, pausing to pray and, when leaving, sounding a bell to draw the attention of the gods.

Later I noticed that the Temple was offering yoga at $3 per class, four times a week. The weeknight teacher, K, was a member of the Temple. Her classes (almost the same every session) were strength oriented and fast paced. Initially I found them quite difficult. Attending twice a week, I gained strength slowly. After six months, I could “do” the whole class, with a few modifications. Since the group is large, little is offered by way of corrections or adjustments. I now consider this my “baseline” fitness activity, and I think I am strong and flexible for a woman over sixty.

The Saturday teacher, S, is an American woman with one of the standard American yoga teacher credentials. Her class is never the same twice! Sometimes it is far too difficult for me. (Downward facing dog to tripod? Are you kidding?) Sometimes S teaches “yin” yoga, which involves long times (3-5 minutes) in postures designed to encourage surrender to gravity. This is supposed to loosen ligaments and joints, rather than building strength in muscles.

Our yoga classes at the Temple are normally held in a medium sized room with no obvious assigned function. I think it is often used for birthday and anniversary parties. It’s smaller and better heated than the social hall. But once in a while we practice in the sanctuary, surrounded by the colorful, glittering gods. It’s a sensual treat, like having heavy cream in coffee! The gods get new attire frequently, probably five times each year. Their costumes are color coordinated, one time all red and white, another time all in shades of yellow and orange. Obviously someone dresses them with great devotion.

Once a year, more or less, the reassuring cycle of classes is interrupted. K goes to India, to see family and do pilgrimage. Volunteers take over her classes. Yoga potluck! Sometimes the substitute teachers are announced in advance, sometimes not. Some are familiar, others total strangers. One taught a system that involved the seasons – I think we made it through Spring and Summer and halfway through Fall. One yelled like a high school football coach. Ugg! One gave instructions in a chanting voice, very uplifting. Another spoke in a soft, affected drawl that grated on my nerves.

I love yoga potluck season (often February or March), and I love the return of K. I’m sure I need at least two teachers, and the K and S combo works very well for me. S has been the main influence in the development of my yoga philosophy. She asserts that the position at which you arrives matters very little, so long as you move into it mindfully and find a pose that suits you. She often refers to her classes as “ego free yoga”, in order to emphasize that comparisons between students should be avoided. (I think there’s a good deal of ego in some parts of the yoga world!) So I often practice with my eyes closed.

I’ve bought into the idea that modifications are good and that there are at least five “right” ways to perform any yoga position. I’ve got physical “issues” – messed up knees and wrists, a dodgy neck, etc. I’m not pushing my luck in a yoga class or elsewhere. Sometimes, I am subversive! I don’t do shoulder stands, and got tired of the alternative offered by K, which was endless leg lifts. Sometimes I just put my feet up against the wall and relax. It’s an inversion, and that’s the point. I’ve seen a few students copy my approach. And others have copied modifications I use to spare my now-delicate wrist joints.

Yoga is a big part of my life. A best friend took yoga teacher training locally last year. My sister is now doing the same near her home in Connecticut. We compare notes and classes and encourage each other.

Meanwhile, the Temple is more than “just” a place to take classes. It’s a window into another continent, and an observation post on the path that turns immigrants into neighbors and friends. I’ve shared the Temple meals during their holidays. The smell of their cooking could bring me in from miles away! Occasionally we yoga students are invited to a lecture or event. Sometimes, in a small way, I have the opportunity to act as a “culture broker”, explaining or facilitating something. Mostly, I can say to MY community “Hey, I know those people. They are OK.” In these troubled and somewhat xenophobic times, with immigration issues on the front burner, I think it helps. I hope so.

Stay tuned for discussion of books about yoga and India!

“Leaving India – My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents” by Minal Hajratwala

This book was a special find because it deals with emigrants from Gujarat, where most of my Indian neighbors come from. I study yoga at a local Hindu temple. Some (older) temple members speak only Gujarati.

This book also deals with a specific caste, the Khatri. There is tangential mention of “Patel” as a caste. It is a very common last name here, usually the most common name among our high school graduates, with 5 or 7 or 9 in a graduating class.

Members of the Khatri caste historically were weavers, but have moved into trade. Around here that means motels, restaurants and a wide range of small businesses. The author of this book is atypical. She is a journalist. Her father was an engineer/scientist, her mother a physical therapist. Their family of four included four nationalities – Indian, Fijian, New Zealander and American, the later two being the birthplaces of the author and her brother. (Possibly some of them have dual citizenship.) The family was in New Zealand at a time when Indians were normally excluded by racial quotas, but Hajratwala’s father had urgently needed scientific skills.

Hajratwala is also exceptional in being openly gay. (I may be jumping to this conclusion. I don’t know the local Gujaratis well enough to be sure.)

I cannot imagine having SO MUCH FAMILY! Hajratwala travels around the world visiting cousins and aunts and relatives by marriage… She records their life stories in vivid detail. 

This is a great book for people adjusting to or curious about America’s current level of diversity, or for anyone with a geographical frame of mind and/or an interest in India. (It says next to nothing about yoga or meditation, which seem to be most irregularly distributed around the Indian subcontinent.) The focus of the book is on individual and family experiences. A little religion, and no politics.

I originally read this in October of 2009. Four years later, I’m still happily going to yoga class at the Hindu temple two or three times a week.