Your Hinduism primer

Saw this via Broome St. Temple: “10 Things I Wish Everyone Knew About Hinduism.” It’s by Senior Director of Hindu American Foundation and Broome Street Temple board member Sheetal Shah. Just one of the things:

3. Karma is more than just “what goes around comes around.”

Karma is the universal law of cause and effect: each action and thought has a reaction, and this cycle is endless until one is able to perform virtuous action without expecting rewards.

The Bhagavad Gita, III.19 and III.20 expounds on this:

Tasmad asakta satatam
Karyam karma samacara
Asakto hy acaran karma
Param apnoti purusah
Lokasampraham eva’pi
Sampasyan kartum arhasi

Therefore, without attachment
Perform always the work that has to be done
For man attains to the highest
By doing work without attachment
Likewise you should perform with a view to guide others
And for the sake of benefiting the welfare of the world

Belief in karma goes hand in hand with belief in reincarnation, where the immortal soul, on its path of spiritual evolution, takes birth in various physical bodies through the cycle of life and death. Though karma can be immediate, it often spans over lifetimes and is one explanation to the commonly asked question, “Why do bad things happen good people?” or visa versa.

Go read the rest.

Posted by Steve

The Bhagavad Gita, as you may not know it

It’s a congenital bent in our household to look thoroughly or deeply at… well, at whatever. Poetry, politics, history, culture, religion. It’s an ongoing push-pull, which I would say isn’t always comfortable but is always necessary.

Trying to look at surrender in the same way is a thorough challenge, especially if as you’re about to do so you see the little thread hanging that can unravel everything.

Historian Wendy Doniger has made an academic career (something worth a thorough rending, by the way) of challenging long-held assumptions and diving more deeply into India’s religious and cultural histories. Her book, The Hindus, as a result is a massive and massively controversial one. You may recall hearing how it got banned in India. I know plenty of people who are decidedly not Doniger fans.

So I present this one a little warily, but I find it too interesting not to pass on. It’s a review of a new book looking at the history of the Bhagavad Gita — here we have more of the review, which is by Doniger, than the book, by religious scholar Richard Davis. Some excerpts:

How did Indian tradition transform the Bhagavad Gita (the “Song of God”) into a bible for pacifism, when it began life, sometime between the third century BC and the third century CE, as an epic argument persuading a warrior to engage in a battle, indeed, a particularly brutal, lawless, internecine war? It has taken a true gift for magic—or, if you prefer, religion, particularly the sort of religion in the thrall of politics that has inspired Hindu nationalism from the time of the British Raj to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi today.


The American Transcendentalists, too, tended to ignore the martial Gita, but they loved the philosophical Gita. In the 1850s, “Thoreau took a borrowed copy of the Wilkins Gita with him to Walden Pond, where he imagined himself communing with a Brahmin priest” on the banks of the Ganges as he sat reading on the banks of the pond. When the first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was published in 1855, Ralph Waldo Emerson commented that it read like “a mixture of the Bhagavat Ghita [sic] and the New York Herald,” and a translation of the Gita was said to have been found under Whitman’s pillow when he died.


Confronted with Krishna’s exhortation to Arjuna to engage in a violent battle, Gandhi argued that by urging him to “fight,” Krishna meant simply that Arjuna should do his duty. “Fighting” was merely a metaphor for the inner struggle of human beings, and nonviolence was a corollary of nonattachment to the fruits of action; therefore, actions such as murder and lying are forbidden, because they cannot be performed without attachment. On the other hand, the lawyer and Dalit spokesperson Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, contesting Gandhi’s claim to speak for Dalits (the lowest castes, or Harijans, as Gandhi called them, “the people of God,” generally called Untouchables at that time), argued that the Gita was a defense of the caste system and that it supported genocide over nonviolence.

Gandhi ignored the warrior Gita at his peril: the man who killed him was driven by it. On the evening of January 30, 1948, Nathuram Godse, as Davis writes, “interrupted Gandhi at the prayer grounds [at Birla House, Delhi] with two bullets fired at point-blank range.” Two days before his execution, Godse wrote a final letter to his parents in which he argued that “Lord Krishna, in war and otherwise, killed many a self-opinionated and influential persons for the betterment of the world, and even in the Gita He has time and again counseled Arjun to kill his near and dear ones and ultimately persuaded him to do so.” Evidently Godse concluded that Krishna would have wanted him to assassinate the “influential” Gandhi for the betterment of the world. Like the revolutionary Khudiram Bose, Godse carried a copy of the Gita on the morning of his execution.

That should give you a fairly clear picture of what the book — and Doniger — present by way of a “biography” of the Gita. Maybe read it at your own risk.

Posted by Steve

WWKD? WWVD? WWSD? A quick look at Hinduism

Interesting and worthwhile Q&A is up at the New York Times — I’m guessing only online, although that matters less and less all the time.

Two reasons to highlight it: Good content for us as well as wanting to see what mainstream people (at least those checking the NYT’s religion forum) are reading about Hinduism. The series is run by Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at my alma mater, the University of Notre Dame. This time he interviews Jonardon Ganeri, a visiting professor of philosophy at New York University Abu Dhabi. He also is the author of “The Lost Age of Reason: Philosophy in Early Modern India 1450–1700.”A few highlights:

G.G.: What do you mean by “non-theistic” concepts of the divine?

J.G.: One such concept sees the text of the Veda as itself divine. Its language, on this view, has a structure that is prior to and isomorphic with the structure of the world and its grammar is complete (although parts may have been lost over the centuries). The divinity of the text inverts the order of priority between text and author: Now, at best, assignment of authorship is a cataloging device not the identification of origin. Recitation of the text is itself a religious act.

Another Hindu conception of the divine is that it is the essential reality in comparison to which all else is only concealing appearance. This is the concept of one finds in the Upanishads. Philosophically the most important claim the Upanishads make is that the essence of each person is also the essence of all things’; the human self and brahman (the essential reality) are the same.

This identity claim leads to a third conception of the divine: that inwardness or interiority or subjectivity is itself a kind of divinity. On this view, religious practice is contemplative, taking time to turn one’s gaze inwards to find one’s real self; but — and this point is often missed — there is something strongly anti-individualistic in this practice of inwardness, since the deep self one discovers is the same self for all.


G.G.: What sort of ethical guidance does Hinduism provide?

J.G.: One of the most important texts in the religious life of many Hindus is the Bhagavadgita, the Song of the Lord. The Gita is deeply philosophical, addressing in poetic, inspirational language a fundamental conundrum of human existence: What to do when one is pulled in different directions by different sorts of obligation, how to make hard choices. The hard choice faced by the protagonist Arjuna is whether to go to war against members of his own family, in violation of a universal duty not to kill; or to abstain, letting a wrong go unrighted and breaking a duty that is uniquely his. Lord Krishna counsels Arjuna with the philosophical advice that the moral motivation for action should never consist in expected outcomes, that one should act but not base one’s path of action on one’s wants or needs.

G.G.: This sounds rather like the Kantian view that morality means doing what’s right regardless of the consequences.

J.G.: There are ongoing debates about what sort of moral philosophy Krishna is proposing — Amartya Sen has claimed that he’s a quasi-Kantian but others disagree. More important than this scholarly debate, though, is what the text tells us about how to live: that living is hard, and doing the right thing is difficult; that leading a moral life is at best an enigmatic and ambiguous project. No escape route from moral conflict by imitating the actions of a morally perfect individual is on offer here. Krishna, unlike Christ, the Buddha or Mohammed is not portrayed as morally perfect, and indeed the philosopher Bimal Matilal very aptly describes him as the “devious divinity.” We can but try our best in treacherous circumstances.

There is plenty more. Big hat tip to Robert Moses for sending the link along to me. It is good timing as we try to synthesis all our experiences from our Yatra — challenging and easy alike. There is another in the series on Buddhism, and you can find them all under a search for Gutting’s name (or just click here).

Special Namarupa hits the virtual shelves

Not too long after a big “regular” issue, Namarupa has released a special issue focused on Vaishnavism. Link to the issue is right here. The cost is $14, and it runs 48 pages.

Here’s a little from the description:


A little reminder of some of our posts on George Harrison to get you in the mood.

Posted by Steve

Eddie Stern at a TedX, oh, and he pretty much takes down Lululemon

Couple things from Eddie Stern that are more than worth sharing.

The first is the latest on the Urban Yogis project he’s a part of — they’ll be doing a TedX talk on Friday.

From the blog post:

Starting next week, the Urban Yogis will move the afternoon classes to the evening, teaching yoga and meditation before the curfew goes into effect, as their own Gandhian response.

In the hero’s return, the hero commits to transforming not only himself, but society, and perhaps, the world. At TEDx, we will be speaking not only about the Hero’s Return, but also about the need to break stereotypes in order to transform.

And the Urban Yogis are about to take the next step on the journey…

All in all, it is a great project, focused on people who can benefit most from yoga.

The second is one that, I think, glanced off our radar: the latest Lululemon nonsense. The company has a new series of retail bags coming out that focus on the five yamas — reminiscent of their past “message” bags. I desperately want to just quote all of Eddie’s response, but you can find it here — and here’s just the tiniest of tastes, his response to how one Lululemming (I think I have that word correct) describes her brahmacharya:

But please call your newfound self-awareness what it is, because it is by no means brahmacharya.

Brahmacharya has several accepted definitions: sexual fidelity to one partner (husband or wife); celibacy as a pre-requisite for spiritual practice; celibacy as an integral part of a spiritual practice; the student phase in the Hindu religion; conduct that leads towards realizing Brahman, or Absolute Consciousness. Any of these will do – it is a philosophical term, for a stage in spiritual practice, and yes, it does matter how it is used. So, out of respect for a several thousand year old tradition, please try doing a little homework next time. The one billion Hindus around the world will thank you for it. And that’s a lot of thank you’s.

I know we’re sort of suckers for when the senior Western teachers show a little extra attitude.

Posted by Steve

Hinduism as an ‘open-source’ faith

As promised, a little more weighty substance for you. This one with a friendly hat tip to Namarupa, a good source for weighty sustenance. It’s from the Huffington Post (never my favorite venue due to headlines like: “Justin Bieber gets NAUGHTY surprise from fan”). But this piece by Josh Schrei is worth your time:

The sheer volume of spiritual literature and doctrine, the number of distinct gods worshiped (over 30 million, according to some sources), the breadth of distinct philosophies and practices that have emerged, and the total transformation over time of many of the core Indic teachings and beliefs can be disconcerting to those raised in monotheistic cultures, as we are used to each faith bringing with it a defined set of beliefs that — with the exception of some denominational rifts over the centuries — stay pretty much consistent over time.

However, the key point of differentiation between Hinduism and these other faiths is not polytheism vs. monotheism. The key differentiation is that “Hinduism” is Open Source and most other faiths are Closed Source.

“Open source is an approach to the design, development, and distribution of software, offering practical accessibility to a software’s source code.”


Atheists and goddess worshipers, heretics who’ve sought god through booze, sex, and meat, ash covered hermits, dualists and non-dualists, nihilists and hedonists, poets and singers, students and saints, children and outcasts … all have contributed their lines of code to the Hindu string.

The results of India’s God Project — as I like to refer to Hinduism — have been absolutely staggering. The body of knowledge — scientific, faith-based, and experience-based — that has been accrued on the nature of mind, consciousness, and human behavior, and the number of practical methods that have been specifically identified to work with ones own mind are without compare. The Sanskrit language itself contains a massive lexicon of words — far more than any other historic or modern language — that deal specifically with states of mental cognition, perception, awareness, and behavioral psychology.

It suggests some rational foment of yoga in the West. Just another line of code being added? And if it doesn’t work, it can just get deleted or someone else can write over it.

Posted by Steve

Encinitas yoga trial: Can I get a witness?

A commenter had wondered who might be on the witness list for the Encinitas Union School District in the case of the yoga program gone bad. (I think that should be said in the voice of the guy who did the voice overs for the People’s Court. Speaking of which, shouldn’t this case have ended up on one of the TV courts?)

Well, we have a name: Andrea Silver. According to the latest (and I’m assuming last for a while) U-T San Diego piece, she testified on behalf of the defense and spoke about teaching yoga:

Peck asked Silver if she had heard of a “secret agenda” by yoga instructors to spread Hinduism and whether she has ever worshiped the sun, an elephant or a monkey, all names associated with yoga poses. Peck later asked Jennifer Brown if she was part of an agenda to indoctrinate children in Hinduism or Buddhism.

Both women said no in response.

So who is she? Well it isn’t this Andrea Silver, from Colorado. It’s this one (I’m guessing, based on the Winnipeg locale):

Andrea came to yoga after a career in the fashion Industry and raising a family. After 15 years of practice and teaching  she  is now  well established in the Winnipeg yoga community. She certified at Yoga Centre Winnipeg in 1999 and taught there for many years.  She studies regularily with Donald Moyer and Mary Lou Weprin of The Yoga Room (Berkeley CA) and gratefully thanks all of her many teachers – Father Joe Periera, Ramanand Patel, Lynne Minton and Hart Lazer (to name a few!) for helping her on her way.  Andie, guides her students with a light hearted approach in a safe and encouraging environment.  Known for her creative sequencing, attention to alignment & breath she teaches the fundementals of asana, encouraging students of all levels with a firm but gentle touch.  She provides personal attention to small groups at Om Practice, her warm and welcoming home studio.

I can’t find anything online to suggest why she was the chosen witness. Anyone more enlightened than I? (A trick question?)

OK, and one more exchange we need to pass on from the trial coverage:

Responding to questions from Broyles about a poster that was briefly in her classroom and depicted Sanskrit terms related to yoga poses, Jennifer Brown said she did not see any religious references in it.

She responded similarly to several questions from Broyles about religious terms.

“Have you ever attained Samadhi?” he asked, referring to a high spiritual state in Hinduism.

“Since I don’t know what that is, I would say no,” she said.

Also, for those with deeper pockets than ours, here is a link to the online case filing. You just have to enter the following: “00035910-CU-MC-CTL”. Thing is, each one costs like $7.50.

Maybe we can get back to a Friday asana aid next.

Posted by Steve

Encinitas yoga trial: Case on hiatus until June without resolution

So much for any blockbuster decision.

The trial in the lawsuit to stop the Encinitas Union School District from teaching a Jois Foundation-backed yoga course to students concluded Wednesday without concluding. Both sides had been promised it would go just two or three days, and when those three days were up without a resolution, the trial got put on hiatus until at least June, according to reports.

As we posted earlier, teacher Jennifer Brown testified on Wednesday, and she even demonstrated a few poses. (Our post links to video of that.)

Both the U-T San Diego has stories (here and here) as does the Coast News, right here.

Both sides plan to call additional witnesses when the trial resumes (with the district finally getting its chance), so expect another two or three days when things get going again.

The focus on Wednesday was Jennifer Brown (as opposed to the opponent’s main witness, religious studies professor Candy Brown, no relation), who teaches in the program. Keep in mind, she was subpoenaed by the program opponents; she wasn’t there as a witness for the district. (She may come back as one, we’ll see.) Here is what the U-T reports:

While acknowledging that she has read to students part of the book “Myths of the Asanas,” which some have described as a religious text, Brown said it’s more of a collection of stories on the origin of yoga poses. She also said she leaves out the word “God” whenever it appears because she doesn’t think it’s appropriate for a classroom.

The Coast probably has the more thorough coverage today, although I am sure a few folks will roll their eyes at this sentence: “She added that she doesn’t worship Hinduism.” But other than that:

Not long after, Broyles caused a stir in the courtroom by asking Brown to exhibit a series of poses. Upon returning to the witness stand, Broyles inquired whether the series references Hinduism. Brown answered that the order of the sequence is the best way to “warm up the body.” As taught, the series doesn’t have any spiritual or religious significance.

Brown noted one fourth grader expressed her mom’s concerns with the program.

“She shared with me that her mom asked if we were going to be talking about the Buddha,” Brown said.

“I assured her — no, we’re not going to be talking the Buddha,” Brown said. “We’re going to breathe; we’re going to move; we’re going to relax.”

If I get a chance later today, I’ll try to track down court records and determine who, exactly, might be on the witness list — as some have asked. I’m not 100% sure it will be the same folks who filed briefs.

Posted by Steve

‘Young students file out saying the traditional yoga goodbye of “Namaste”‘

As we all know, the key points of contention in the lawsuit involving the Encinitas school district and the Jois Foundation are whether yoga is inherently “religious” and, if so, should be taught in schools — in a state-sanctioned arena, so to speak.

In their public statements, leaders from the Jois Foundation and teachers involved in the yoga classes have said, repeatedly, that they have taken all the Sanskrit and Hinduism out of what they teach. In many ways it is a stretching class with an emphasis on mental focus and breathing.

Yoga without the religion, so to speak.

Of course, the opponents aren’t buying that. You can see their arguments here.

Having seen an example of the Jois class, I can say it sure looked like stretching with some breathing involved. No chanting. No bows to the guru. As such, it is hard to see the problem, unless you are convinced that you can’t take the Hinudism out of yoga and distill it into the “science” of yoga.

Now, in the case of a different set of yoga classes for kids in Greenwich, Ct. … well…

It’s a yoga class for kids — or more specifically a YogiSays class — and these youngsters, ages 5 to 12, are getting to know yoga, courtesy of the Greenwich Department of Social Services and YogiSays instructor Miss Brooke.


“It’s great for kids in need and in crisis. They learn soothing techniques through postures and breath work,” she says. “They live in a very fast environment. Here, they’re learning to be still. This is the whole point why yoga was `invented.’ They can control their rhythm and breath and heart rate. It all comes together. It’s a union of mind and body.”

All on point so far? Nothing much different from the Jois classes? Let’s keep going…

As she goes around to each child, she places her hands on their ears, shoulders and forehead where she positions a “bindi,” a small decoration between their brows, that serves as a “third eye,” a place they connect to to relax.

She ends the class with, “Miss Brooke will see you soon.”

The young students file out saying the traditional yoga goodbye of “Namaste.”

“It means a bow to your true self,” she tells them as she shows them how to press their hands together, fingers pointed upwards, in front of their chests.

I can only imagine the reaction that would have received in Encinitas.

My concern with the Jois lawsuit is, of course, that it is intended to set a precedent that would force the separation of yoga from public settings, the effective elimination of yoga. And if the very non-Sanskrit/non-Hindu classes going on in Encinitas end up being tossed out, it is difficult to see how ones that appear to cut closer to a Hindu foundation wouldn’t be the next (and easy?) targets.

Oh, and if you’re wondering… yes, this is the Greenwich where Jois Yoga has another of its studios. So is it a big stretch to think that geography alone could put this program on a radar? I don’t know. It just seems like maybe an unfortunate coincidence. (The program described also runs in school systems in Greenwich, Darien and Westchester, according to the story.)

Posted by Steve