Archive for the ‘Hinduism’ Category

Bad Girls and Goddesses, Censorship, Good Press and the Dream World   Leave a comment

donigerWendy Doniger’s gotten some extensive press lately. Not on the scale of Kim Kardashian, but still … Whether or not Doniger or anyone accepts the half-truth that “all press is good press,” recent books by this University of Chicago professor of Hinduism have aroused the ire of vocal Hindus variously called fundamentalists, conservatives and Hindutva-vadis, supporters of Hindutva or “Hindu-ness.”

Penguin Books in India recently recalled Doniger’s 2009 study, The Hindus: An Alternative History, because the Delhi-based group SBAS — Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti (“Save Education Movement”) — characterized the book as “malicious,” “derogatory and offending to Hinduism” and containing “faulty representation of Indian history and historical figures.”  SBAS advanced its case with a successful push for the withdrawal of a second book of Doniger’s as well, On Hinduism, published in 2013.

hindubkprotest1The legal footing that SBAS stands on appears in the Indian Penal Code.  SBAS spokeperson Dinanath Batra benefits from the code which states that “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs shall be punished with imprisonment or fine, or both.”*  We’ll sidestep for now the apparent dangers of granting such strong legal recourse to anyone whose sensibilities might be offended.  After all, outrage is the stance du jour of much of the political conversation in the States.

Of course, censors and free-speechers have been waging these and similar battles for a long time, with no likely end in sight.  When Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is still the fourth most frequently banned book in the U.S., as well as a “Great American Novel,” such controversy comes as no surprise. (A 2011 edition of the Twain classic removes the 200+ instances of the word “nigger” and replaces them with “slave.”)**

opmythsDoniger, now 73, is a respected scholar, having taught at Chicago for 36 years, and published dozens of books and hundreds of scholarly articles.  Even before publication in India, she worked with editors to soften potentially inflammatory wording.  But as Doniger remarks in a February ’14 New York Times article, her focus is on popular Hinduism.  She wanted “to tell a story of Hinduism that’s been suppressed and was increasingly hard to find in the media and textbooks … It’s not about philosophy, it’s not about meditation, it’s about stories, about animals and untouchables and women. It’s the way that Hinduism has dealt with pluralism.”  The Times article continues:  “Asked if she could sympathize at all with those offended by her work, Ms. Doniger said: ‘In general, I don’t like people saying nasty things about other people’s religion, but this is something else. This is fundamentalism, which says that parts of its own religion are bad. In a sense, I’m defending their religion, and they’re attacking it.’”

As Slate notes, “The Hindus, which is still available internationally, is currently the number 11 bestselling book on Amazon, which is not too shabby for a four-year old religious history book by a University of Chicago divinity professor. The worst enemy of censorship is always curiosity.”

Columnist Swati Sharma in the 20 Feb. ’14 Washington Post concludes,

There are some concerns when it comes to Doniger and Western media articles about the backlash against her work. While you can disagree with the book and still want it published, Doniger repeatedly blames any criticism of her work on the right wing, sweeping aside any real concerns about it. It’s almost too easy to frame those who are religious as religious fundamentalists — when some on the far right try to ban “On the Origin of Species” in the United States, it doesn’t mean all Christians support such drastic measures. In the same sense, there are many Hindus, scholars and academics who disagree with her writings but believe the book should be published. Those voices get trampled by an easily digestible battle between religious fundamentalists and secular liberals. But that’s what happens when a book is basically banned; the debate on the actual content is lost and is focused instead on free speech. That’s where Doniger is in the right.

That doesn’t mean the right-wing party isn’t pushing this debate — after all, elections are coming in May. That said, Penguin’s decision to not wait for a judgment and to settle is disappointing. It’s easy to publish books that are safe. It’s for the ones that challenge us that the concept of free speech exists.

Doniger doesn’t shy away from the provocative remark.  She gets off a few zingers, for instance, in her article in yesterday’s 5 March ’14) NY Times, “Banned in Bangalore“:

I must apologize for what may amount to false advertising on my behalf by Mr. Batra, who pronounced my book “filthy and dirty.” Readers who bought a copy in hope of finding such passages will be, I fear, disappointed. “The Hindus” isn’t about sex at all. It’s about religion, which is much hotter than sex.

“Hotter than Sex” would make a great book or blog title.  Yes, you’re welcome.

And in her  blog post “Respect For Women Yes, Worship of Goddesses No” Doniger observes:

But the goddess feminists are whistling in the dark when they argue, first, that everyone used to worship goddesses (some people did, but many did not) and, second, that this was a Good Thing for women, indeed for everyone, their assumption being that women are more compassionate than men.

In fact, when men as well as women do worship goddesses, as they have done for centuries in many parts of India, the religious texts and rituals clearly express the male fear of female powers, and the male authors of those texts therefore make even greater efforts to control women, as if to say, “god help us all if these naturally powerful women get political power as well.”

There is generally, therefore, an inverse ratio between the worship of goddesses and the granting of rights to human women. Nor are the goddesses by and large compassionate; they are generally a pretty bloodthirsty lot.

Goddesses are not, therefore, the solution. Equal respect for human men and women is the solution.

But if our deities mirror ourselves, as they seem to do, we can be grateful for changes in both.  We can be grateful that slavery is now illegal, that racism no longer gets such an easy pass, that women’s rights are a live issue, that the beginnings and ends of life are being examined critically, despite our weariness with the wars of political correctness and with conservative-liberal polarization.  Does morality evolve?  Just what absolutes are you looking for?

I like to let my subjects have the last words (even if I chose them to illustrate my own post rather than letting them make only their own points).  So here’s an excerpt from another of Doniger’s blog-posts, “The Mutual Dream,” which offers a polytheist perspective worth examining for its explanatory power:

A better idea, I think, is captured by several of India’s many philosophies of reality and illusion, which suggest that we do indeed create god (and therefore religion) in our imaginations, as we create all of our reality, but that at the same time god creates us in god’s imagination, that god is, like us, constantly dreaming into existence a reality that includes us imagining god. We are mutually dreaming, mutually existing.

A modified, slightly rationalized, version of this belief would be the assertion that, although we do not make god ex nihilo, nor does god make us ex nihilo, we are the ones who bring god fully to life, while god in turn is what brings us truly to life, makes us fully alive to the phenomenal world, dream world though it may be.

This is not an idea that is easy for people trained in Western philosophical ideas to swallow, and it all depends upon how you define god, but for me it is rich in meaning.

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*Times of India 2 March ’14 article and 11 Feb. ’14 article.

**Daily Mail, 5 Jan. ’11.

Image: Doniger; book protest; Other People’s Myths.

Updated 8 March 2014

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About Initiation, Part 3   Leave a comment

Go to Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

The circle of a dozen or so Druids in the grove ahead wait in silence as I approach with my guide.  Half are dressed in ceremonial garb, and the chief Druid, in addition to her white robe, wears a circlet on her brow.  Just below it, three streaks of white descend and splay outward — the three rays of awen*, spiritual illumination and inspiration.  They stand out on her tanned skin.  In that instant, other faces flash in my awareness — followers of Vishnu and Shiva, who wear similar ritual tilak, facial markings that identify them as devotees of their god.  I know from prior experiences that I have lived past lives in India.  Initiation often links us to previous openings of consciousness, a reminder of this long path we walk.

In the same instant, my awareness shifts again.  What we do here feels immemorially ancient — the grove, the gathered initiates, the ritual challenge, the spiritual power invoked to seal the rite, the sense of kinship with these people.  The circle also feels larger than the number I can see — many who are present come “without their skins on.”  The form of the rite is endlessly variable, and yet always the same at heart: Will I accept this opportunity to grow?  Even as awe runs its cat-feet up and down my spine, I think how many times I have no doubt answered with my life:  “No.  I am afraid.  Other things matter more.  Doing nothing is easier.  I don’t like change.”  But from these half-beginnings and false starts, and from the times I did inch forward, I have built up a reservoir of spiritual momentum that serves me now.  I have grown since those times, willingly and unwillingly.  I can do more now, because of what I did then. How much still remains to be seen.  But I am newly initiate. I have begun … again.

We cannot readily live in this consciousness all the time without training and discipline.  But it serves as a foretaste of what is possible.  This is, after all, initiation — a beginning, an open door.  How and whether I move forward depends on me.

“You are the best you’ve ever been,” a Wise One tells the disciples gathered to listen and question.  I measure this against a nagging sense of having lost much of what I once knew, and could do.  Is this an echo of wisdom and achievement I threw away sometime in the past, or an inkling of what lies ahead?  If I’m the best now, with the crap I know I have hanging off me, what kind of schmuck was I, oh, say a thousand years ago, or ten lives into the past?!  And so we introvert and let our weaknesses decide who we are, rather than knowing they are merely guidelines for where to bring the light, where to put conscious intention rather than unthinking reaction.  If I can perceive them, I’m part-way to no longer letting them rule.

Go to Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

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*Awen (ah-wehn), a Welsh word meaning “inspiration, illumination,” also serves in OBOD some of the same purposes that OM does for meditators in other traditions.  As an echo of primordial sound, it is chanted in ceremonies and in private.

The three rays of awen are sometime represented thus:  /|\  (I use a triple awen as a text divider and as part of this site’s design.) OBOD uses a three-rayed awen, topped with three dots, as a logo and symbol of the Order.

Image:  tilak.

Religious Operating System (ROS) — Part 3: Questions and Authorities   Leave a comment

So if you found my previous post about fear and death (and nerds — yay!) a bit too off-putting, here’s a reprieve.  What else might a new “religious operating system” have on offer? In a Huffington Post article from some time ago (Sept. 2010) titled “The God Project:  Hinduism as Open Source Faith,” author Josh Schrei asserts that the principal distinction between Hinduism and other more familiar Western faiths is not that the former is polytheistic and the latter are monotheistic, but that “Hinduism is Open Source and most other faiths are Closed Source.”  (We’re already increasingly familiar with the open-source approach from computer systems like Linux and community-edited resources like wikis.) In this series on what a more responsive and contemporary religious design might look like (here are previous parts one and two), this perspective can offer useful insight.

If we consider god, the concept of god, the practices that lead one to god, and the ideas, thoughts and philosophies around the nature of the human mind the source code, then India has been the place where the doors have been thrown wide open and the coders have been given free rein to craft, invent, reinvent, refine, imagine, and re-imagine to the point that literally every variety of the spiritual and cognitive experience has been explored, celebrated, and documented. 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 one’s 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’s important to note that despite Schrei’s admiration for Hinduism (and its sacred language Sanskrit — more in a coming post), the West has all of these same resources — we just have developed them outside explicitly religious spheres.  Instead, psychology, so-called “secular” hard sciences, social experimentation, counter-cultural trends and other sources have contributed to an equally wide spread of understandings.  The difference is that far fewer of them would be something we would tag with the label “religion,” especially since the pursuit of things like ecstatic experience — apart from some Charismatic and Pentecostal varieties — generally lies outside what we in the West call or perceive as “religion.”

The underlying principle that drives such a range of activity perceived as “religious” also stands in sharp contrast with religion in the West.  (Of course there are exceptions. To name just one from “inside religion,” think of Brother Lawrence and his Practice of the Presence of God.) As Schrei remarks, “At the heart of the Indic source code are the Vedas, which immediately establish the primacy of inquiry in Indic thought.” To put it another way, India and Hinduism didn’t need their own version of the American 60s and its byword “question authority,” because implicit in open-source religion is “authorize questions.” Nor did they need debates over Creation or Evolution, because scientific inquiry could be seen as a religious undertaking. Schrei continues:

In the Rig Veda, the oldest of all Hindu texts (and possibly the oldest of all spiritual texts on the planet), God, or Prajapati, is summarized as one big mysterious question and we the people are basically invited to answer it. “Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen?” While the god of the Old Testament was shouting command(ment)s, Prajapati was asking: “Who am I?”

This tendency to inquire restores authority to its rightful place.  In an era in the West when so many faux authorities have been revealed as spiritually hollow or actively deceitful, we’ve arrived at a widespread cynical distrust of any claims to authority.  But true authorities do still exist.  Their hallmark is an invitation to question and find out for ourselves.  Jesus says, “Ask and you will know, seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you.”  These aren’t the words of one who fears inquiry.  To paraphrase another of his sayings, when we can learn and know the truth about something, we will meet an increase of freedom regarding it.  It will not intimidate us, or lead us to false worship, or mislead us.  One identifier of truth is the freedom it conveys to us.

Authorities also benefit us because out of their experience they can guide us toward the most fruitful avenues of inquiry, and spare us much spinning in circles, pursuing wild geese, and squandering the resources of a particular lifetime.  Whether we choose to follow good advice is a wholly separate matter.  Authorities can point out pitfalls, and save us from reinventing the wheel.  At a time when so many look East for wisdom, only recently have we been rediscovering the wisdom of the West hidden on our doorsteps.

Examples abound. The Eastern Orthodox church has preserved a wealth of spiritual practices and living exemplars in places like Mount Athos in Greece.  The Pagan resurgence over the last decades has done much useful weeding and culling of overlooked and nearly forgotten traditions rich in valuable methods for addressing deeply the alienation, disruption, dis-ease, physical illness and spiritual starvation so many experience.  Individuals within Western monotheisms like Rob Bell and his book Love Wins have served as useful agents for reform and introspection.  While it may not be always true, as Dr. Wayne Dyer claims, that “every problem has a spiritual solution,” we’ve only just begun to regain perspectives we discounted and abandoned through the past several centuries, mostly through the seductions of our increasing mastery of a few select processes of the physical plane and their capacity to provide us with comforts, sensations, entertainments and objects unknown until about 75 years ago.  We’ve self-identified as “consumers” rather than spiritual beings.  Hamlet identified the problem centuries ago: “What is a man if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed?”  Or as another of the Wise asked, “What does it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and lose his soul?”  Let us be soul-finders and soul-nourishers.  Otherwise, why bother?

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Images:  open-source cartoon; veda; Mount Athos

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