About this blog

I hope to offer some of the ideas of Vaishnava Vedanta which have particular application in revealing the bigger picture of life and the universe as well as many of the simple things of life.

Diwali Stories

HinduismPosted by Akhandadhi das Fri, October 09, 2015 22:25:29
BBC Wales - Weekend Word

12th November 2001

Good morning. This week Hindus celebrate Diwali – the Festival of Lights. For me, one of the joys of this time of year is discussing the story behind the festival - how Rama’s wife, Sita, was kidnapped by the evil tyrant, Ravana, and how Rama defeated Ravana at the great battle of Lanka.

Contained in this epic are wonderful messages about fidelity, duty and devotion to God. But, this year, as I reflect upon the Diwali story, I feel uncomfortable, because, when a religious story appears to be a simple good versus evil tale, it’s so easy for people to draw out all sorts of questionable conclusions to suit their political motivations. Considering world events at the moment, I think it must be hard to hear a story from any faith without seeing the danger of it being misinterpreted for malevolent purposes.

Individuals, groups and nations can portray themselves as victims of wrong-doing and claim that they are the good guys on God’s side fighting the tyranny of the baddies. They can then find scriptural justification for the use of force, violence or even terrorism to combat the perceived evil.

Unfortunately, their adversaries may also be doing the same thing by drawing on their own scriptures. But, the real truth is never so clear cut.

No wonder some folk feel that religion is the cause of too many wars. Even without religion, people will find something to fight about; but religion does add spiritual authority to the rightness of a cause. It then seems to allow a mandate for the use of almost any means to achieve so-called God’s purpose. That’s a dangerous mixture.

As my spiritual teacher told me: “Religion without philosophy is at best sentimental; at worst, it is fanatical”. There is, therefore, a real onus on the leaders and teachers of all religions to promote responsible spiritual attitudes in the followers of their faith. And perhaps, we could apply the old Sanskrit proverb:- “phalena paritiyate” – which means that the value of an idea can be gauged by its fruits.

I believe we should prove how our religion or ideology makes the world a better place - here and now – and not just for us! Does it help people outside our own community feel more secure, more understood and more cared for? If so, we may be on to something.

© BBC This script was commissioned by the BBC for broadcast as “Weekend Word” on BBC Radio Wales.

A Festival of Juggernauts?

HinduismPosted by Akhandadhi das Thu, October 08, 2015 00:47:58

Faith & Reason for The Independent

10th July 1999

Even if they are a practical necessity for a consumer society, Juggernauts hardly seem a cause for celebration. But, this is a time-honoured tradition – at least, in India.

This Wednesday, just as for over 1000 years, on the second day after the new moon in the Hindi month of Ashadh, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims will converge on the town of Puri on the Bay of Bengal to enjoy the festival of Jagannath Rathayatra. A colourful procession of massive carts carrying the worshipable images from the ancient Jagannath temple will be hand-pulled along Puri’s grand parade.

As well as explaining the origin of “juggernaut” from Jagannath, my helpful dictionary notes that “devotees formerly threw themselves under the wheels of the cart carrying Juggernaut, an idol of Krishna”. Thus, another great tradition is kept alive – perpetuating prejudices about foreign customs and beliefs through the judicious use of the English language.

In the early 19th century, there was a concerted effort to undermine the hold of the Hindu religion in the sub-continent to allow for easier colonial and missionary domination. Lectures were offered in Oxford “to help candidates for a prize of two hundred pounds for the best refutation of the Hindu religious system”.

No doubt the world has moved on. There is generally a greater appreciation for the worth of other faith traditions, even if not an acceptance of their intrinsic truth. But just this week, in the instances of the donated organs for “whites only”, and a senior army officer’s assertions that all Catholics are Republicans and hence IRA sympathisers, we have been reminded of the how prejudice and misconception run deep within our society.

India, of course, is not without bigotry. I have visited Puri several times but, although I have been a practising convert to Krishna-devotion for 25 years, I am not allowed access into the Jagannath temple. That right is reserved solely for Hindu-born Hindus. The rationale is that, although my efforts at spiritual purification are laudable, I will need to await my next birth as a Hindu to enjoy the privileges.

The consolation is that this is not widespread. I have been wonderfully welcomed elsewhere. Nor is it a new stricture. Even in the 16th century, Haridas Thakur, renowned within his lifetime as the epitome of Krishna devotion, was barred from the Jagannath temple because he was born in a Muslim family. Without complaint or petition, he accepted the ban and focussed himself on the recitation of one third of a million names of God every day.

Haridas’s inspiration was the saint and reformer, Sri Chaitanya (1486-1534), who actively challenged the caste system and sectarian prejudices of the time, not by political or social pressure, but by preaching a message that God is accessible for all. Jagannath, literally translates as “ Lord of the World”. Sri Chaitanya used the annual cart festival to involve everyone, regardless of background, in the spiritual experience of chanting and dancing. As he said, “ I do not belong to any caste, nor to any community. I wish only to be the servant of the servant of the servant of God.”

Contemporary with the Renaissance and Reformation in Europe, Sri Chaitanya’s message revolutionised the popular style of the Hindu religion, despite the challenges it faced from the Moghul rule and, later, the British Raj. By stressing the universal ability to worship God anywhere, Chaitanya brought religious life out of the temples and to the people without diminishing the value of temple visits for regular worship and pilgrimage. He challenged the high priests’ stranglehold on the Sanskrit scriptures, yet commended the benefits of a genuine teacher-disciple relationship.

Jagannath’s own appearance is another challenge to prejudice. He is black. Europe has celebrated God’s Caucasian form through Blake and Michaelangelo. So, the image of Jagannath is striking – a seven-feet high jet-black figure with large round eyes – more reminiscent of an African mask than other temple deity forms of Krishna. A Hindu apologist theology emerged in the 19th century that tried to counter the charges of “primitive idol-worshipping” from Christian missionaries by explaining that the temple images, although not merely mundane statues, were just pointers towards God – a means of focussing one’s concentration in prayer.

Initially, this may have been discretion to conceal the more esoteric assertion of the Vedic scriptures – that when the temple image is properly prepared and installed it is a divine incarnation. The Hindu temple is not just the house of God, but His home. God personally resides there, available to commune with visitors and to accept their homage and acts of devotional service.

“But,” as I was once asked, “ does this mean that God looks like that?” No, Jagannath is just one way in which God appears to human society. In the same way I was taught during my Presbyterian upbringing that the burning bush was a manifestation of God. There is no monopoly on God’s appearance, but understanding Jagannath offers some particular insights into the nature of the personality of Godhead.

No one can know God in fullness, but each of us is allowed a glimpse. Perhaps, our visions over-lap. Perhaps, they appear to have no correlation. But, each person’s realisations contain vital truths of God and spiritual life. In my experience, religious dialogue becomes enriching when we set aside close-minded prejudices and are truly open to discovering the truth within another’s spiritual viewpoint – no matter how strange it may appear at the outset. Such generous communication can strengthen the faith of both participants and help each of us make better sense of our own fragments of the jigsaw puzzle.

Commissioned by The Independent, Faith & Reason

Freedom to Choose

HinduismPosted by Akhandadhi das Sat, October 03, 2015 19:42:39
Faith & Reason

Independent - Saturday, 17th October 1998

This week, I get the opportunity to repeat a magical experience I had seven years ago - to fly into New Delhi on the evening of Diwali. Last time, as the plane descended towards the city, we were surrounded by the benign ack-ack explosions of fireworks creating a Disney-like fantasy. The experience was all the more enjoyable for being a modern approximation of the Diwali story in which the hero and heroine, Ram and Sita, after 14 years of exile, return to their capital city in a flower aeroplane with millions of tiny lights guiding their route.

Ram's banishment to the forest was not enforced; it was by choice. But a choice that he made in order to uphold the will of his father.

The freedom to choose for ourselves has become the guiding principle of modern politics and ideology. Hinduism would not disagree with that. Too often religion is seen as a dictatorial hierarchy with scant regard for the individual's inclinations, perhaps viewing human freedom only as something to be curtailed lest it unleashes our lower nature.

Yet, the freedom to choose is part of the irrepressible human spirit. We want consumer choice, health care choice, schools choice and digital TV choice. We are also concerned to protect our ability to make free decisions. We can choose our representatives in Parliament, but we feel the need to limit how much is spent on influencing our choices.

Someone once described joining a faith community as a choice similar to that of enlisting in the army. Having made the initial decision and surrendered your decision-making faculties, you are then bound by the rules and regulations of your faith. However, the Aquarian age has little respect for traditions and structures that require such docile adherence. This is the era of pro-choice for everything.

Part of my attraction for the Hindu faith is that it is not a religion based on rules. That seems strange considering the vast array of injunctions in its scriptures covering all topics from daily ablutions to ethics - even how best to eat an orange. (Cut into quarters diagonally and suck to get the goodness and avoid too much pith.) But, these statements are generally sound advice to help an individual achieve a particular goal. Hindu scriptures recognise that our goals vary considerably and they simultaneously provide the sexual suggestions of the Kama-sutras as well as the ascetic philosophy of the Upanishads.

Whilst providing for choice, these texts do not play to the illusion that all choices yield the same benefits. Rather, they provide guidance in a way that questions the individual's motivations and opens their mind to a higher agenda. That is the responsibility of religion - to question our agenda and to provide spiritual insights that should be borne in mind when making our choices.

The Bhagavad-gita concludes with the challenge, "now that you have heard these truths, deliberate on them fully and do as you wish." The message is that the responsibility for choice is ours, but that we should choose only after having understood the full picture.

This is the same approach being adopted by the government as it tries to promote better eating habits in schools this week. It cannot legislate that children must eat their greens, but it does want schools to teach the importance of healthy eating for general well being and fitness and then to provide suitably healthy selections.

Religion must query our choice without the use of fear or guilt. It should raise the questions that may get omitted in our everyday consideration of life. What if my life does not end with the demise of the body? What significance is there for me if there is a transcendental authority for the universe,?

In the Diwali story, the choices of two key characters, Ravana and Hanuman are contrasted. Ravana became enamoured with Ram's wife, Sita. He kidnapped and tried to seduce her, stubbornly ignoring the repeated advice of his brothers to see the evil of his actions and to make amends with Ram. His intransigence was not only from his lust for Sita, but in his attempt to establish his independence from anyone else's authority or interests.

Hanuman also sought out Sita, but with the singular intent of re-uniting her with Ram. His example is said to symbolise the type of selfless devotion essential to the experience of love.

Love cannot exist without freedom of choice. The opposite of love is not hate, but envy. Envy means that I derive my pleasure from another's pain, and pain from their pleasure. Conversely, love means I enjoy witnessing the pleasure of my beloved, and I suffer seeing their pain. The devotional texts of Hinduism say that the freedom to choose to love another being is so fundamental to our nature that God will never interfere with it.

There is a progression of intensity of service and love. Service to others which is enforced is simply slavery. Service, which is motivated by a sense of responsibility, is duty. But, service inspired by selfless devotion is an expression of love. When it comes to receiving affection from our loved-ones, neither slavery nor duty will move our hearts. The same is true of God. He would like the choice to love Him to be ours.

Commissioned for the Independent