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