13th Century Love on a 21st Century Stage

The modern Indian classical artist* is often tasked with expressing romantic themes which seemingly belong to premodern times. The imagery we evoke can seem frozen in a time when there were emperors, courtesans, cowherds, endless mehfils. As artists, we often wonder how clearly we express these ideas to the public. Do they understand, for example, when we portray the lover lighting a diya in anticipation of the arrival of the beloved on a dark night? However, the questions posed in classical Indian texts on aesthetics pose a different question: How well can the artist imbue the particular qualities of an emotional experience, and thus, cause it to arise in the viewer/listener?

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Crafting a Home Retreat

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“Dates with the soul: Without taking breaks, I start to feel like I don’t have a grasp of all the balls in the air and what my priorities are for each day and even my life overall. I feel like I’m behind on stuff, but I don’t know what.”  — Michael Simmons

I was generally forced to go on retreats earlier in life, not really knowing what they could be. A spiritual retreat generally meant a group trip to a temple or ashram, or a religious youth camp. I had good experiences and learned a lot, but things never happened on my terms.

Going on retreat means something much different to me now. I sometimes find that I am overwhelmed by life. I have too much to do. Social media feels like way too much information to take in at once. I lose track of my boundaries and do too much for others, while doing too little for myself. I feel untethered from my goals, and smothered by some vague, ever-present force. I hate myself and feel like a burden on others.

Retreat, to me, is a time where I refocus on my own needs. It’s selfish, and that is great for my mind and soul. I implement practices that are meaningful to me, that are spiritually recharging, but by no means will work for everyone. I make a schedule and stick to it, which helps me keep the time I take as intentional as possible. It can be as short as a day, or as long as a month. I can be on retreat even while going to work, though I usually will block off at least my weekends for myself.

Below, I’ve decided to share some practices that work for me. I’ve provided an explanation of why I’ve chosen to incorporate each part, with some examples interspersed where I saw fit. I highly recommend reading Woman’s Retreat Book by Jennifer Louden for more information. You can also feel free to comment on this post if you have any questions! I think incorporating even one of these practices for a week could produce change.

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Therapy with the Enemy

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One of the most well-known parts of the medical doctors’ Hippocratic Oath includes a commitment to treating disease wherever it exists, and in whomever it exists. On a daily basis, physicians treat medical conditions for people who may have very different values than they might have, such as people who physically abuse their children, or people who may be racist. Thankfully, I am not a physician.

Psychologists have a bit more leeway in who they choose to see. If you have such significant bias against a person that it would compromise the quality of care that they would receive, it is ethical to refer them to another provider. That isn’t to say that you can refer someone out every time you disagree with them over something. You generally have to have a strong ethical case for refusing to treat someone (i.e., seeing them for treatment would cause more harm than good).

When talking about patients which I may have radical value differences with, one of my patients, Tom*, comes to mind. I enjoy working with Tom, for the most part. For someone who has endured severe chronic illness since childhood, he is a positive, upbeat, and compassionate individual. Most people in his situation would probably be severely depressed. On the other hand, Tom frequently shares beliefs with me that, unbeknownst to him, I am completely against. His views are often quite bizarre, and are generally a part of persecutory delusions stemming from trauma earlier in life.

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Pashupati and the Brothers of the Beasts

We never call God by Its name, but rather, by adjectives and epithets. Ishvara, Bhagavan, etc. are all descriptors-as-titles. One such name associated with Shiva is Pashupati, Lord of the Animals. This is also one of his earliest names, dating to prehistoric times.

No human is without animality, no animal without divinity. We are bound in responsibility to animals, nature, humanity. In this work, we become more of ourselves.

Recognizing one’s own animal includes recognizing our innate drives for eating/sleeping/sex. In becoming aware, we can start to reflect and decide how much we use these activities to weigh us down versus to increase our intellect, love, sense of purpose, etc.

“Shiva looked at the suras [deities] and said, ‘It is not a disgrace to recognize your own animal. Only those who practice the rites of the brothers of the animals, the Pashupatas, will be able to overcome their animal nature.’ It was thus that all the suras recognized that they were the Lord’s cattle, and that he is known by the name of Pashupati, the Lord of Animals. Through the animals, forest spirits, satyrs, nymphs, faeries*, and protective spirits of creation, Pashupati is revealed in all aspects of the natural world.

“All those who consider the Lord of Animals as their God become brothers of the beasts. The most sacred Pashupata Yoga, the Yoga of the brothers of the animals, [through which the unity of living beings is realized], explains the structure of the universe and its ephemerality.”

(1st quote – Shiva Purana. 2nd quote – Linga Purana. Both trans. Alain Daniélou in ‘Gods of Love and Ecstasy: The Traditions of Shiva and Dionysus’)

*I don’t have the original sanskrit for names of these different creatures, but I love the mix of European and Indian fantastical imagery, so I’ll leave it like this!

How to Build Mandirs Big Enough for Women and Third-Gender People

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Author’s Note: In this article, in an effort to be true to the language often used in Hindu communities, the word “third-gender” (tritiya-prakriti) is used to describe individuals who fall outside of the male-female gender binary, and/or express non-heterosexual desire. The term LGBTQ+ is also used in this article to express a similar system of non-cisgendered/heterosexual categorization. Please google these terms to learn more.

While some religious groups see feminism as a Western or secular invention, and thus, a threat to their belief and organizational systems, many Hindu spaces in America are happy to brand themselves as feminist. However, what it really means to be a feminist space seems to be unclear in the Hindu community. Terms like “women’s empowerment” are thrown around, and yet, many Hindu spaces continue to unintentionally push young women and third-gender people away.

This is not to say that any other religious group is particularly better at being inclusive of feminist thought than Hindus are. Every group has its successes, as well as its failures. However, the examples in this article are based on conversations I have had with many of my female and non-binary Hindu friends, wherein we talk about how much we genuinely cherished the religious spaces we grew up in, yet were eventually pushed away by reasons that were inherently gendered.

Many of my Hindu peers do not regularly attend any temple. This is not because they are irreligious. We have conversations about religion and spiritual practices almost every day, and celebrate major holidays together. However, we are continually disappointed by the way our Hindu spaces continue to be dominated by the same people: uncles with superiority complexes and little valuable innovation to offer; young, entitled men who can do no wrong (according to their moms); religious leaders who read the same messages from the same texts with no concern for what we’re really facing in the real world. Not all, but many.

In my closest friend circle, my female friends faced more immediate discouragement. Growing up, a group of my friends regularly attended a Guyanese Hindu mandir (temple) in Queens. Not only did we go there every Sunday, but we regularly went for classes and pujas during the week. Even while in college, I attended at least three times a week. We formed some of our deepest friendships at this mandir, and gained our most formative connections to spirituality. We do not regret our time spent there.

And there, we also faced some of our deepest indignities, which were almost always along gendered lines. Young women’s characters were constantly judged by how much time we could devote to the mandir; whether we spoke to boys or not; what we wore both inside and outside mandir; how much we deferred our opinion to elders. At age 13, I first started showing symptoms of depression; in college, when I first started seeing a therapist, I uncovered how damaging all of this had been to my self-worth. Of course, I didn’t need a therapist to start to suspect that this all was having an impact on me. By the time I was in high school, my mandir friends and I had already began questioning things ourselves. Continue reading

Touching God: Ritual and Intimacy

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When we are born, we do not yet have the ability to communicate verbally, and have very limited abilities to see and hear. Our first mode of communication is through touch. We sense changes in tension, shape and movement flow in our mother/caregiver’s body. We learn how to interpret the meanings of changes in sensation, and consequently learn how to communicate through our bodies. Babies learn very early on how to arch their back away to avoid something, how to soften and melt their body into somebody they love. They understand when the person who is holding them is anxious or scared to be with them through the tension felt between bodies, and even changes they might feel in pulse. In fact, a large component of this understanding may be instinctual, not learned.

We never really lose this ability to communicate through touch. We learn to value verbal expression as our primary mode of communication, but we never really lose the ability to learn about how others feel about us and to communicate how we feel to others through touch. For example, by placing a hand on somebody’s shoulder from behind to get their attention, we can often detect what their mood or expression might be before we even see their face. It is the most primal way we learned to build relationships, learn our own value, seek affection and care, and build social interactions.

Thus, the world’s earliest religions communed with the divine through a physical relationship with the world. Rituals, via their property of physical touch, developed as a way to communicate with and make sense of what early humans must have believed was a very chaotic world. However, this sense-making is not the same as abstract philosophization. Ritual is not an attempt to predict and deconstruct through the mind, or logical and analytic faculties, as much as it is a means to grow intimacy with that which is unpredictable, unknowable. Continue reading

They Want Her Throwing Flowers: Love and Aggression

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“You know, Paro, so much beauty is not right for one person to have. Isn’t it obvious – the moon is marked because it is so beautiful. Come, let me mar your face and spoil its perfection.” –from Devdas, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay

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As Navratri approaches again, I am reminded of something I read last year about the artists who create devi pandals in West Bengal, India. During Navratri, the nine-night festival dedicated to honoring the Goddess (Devi) in her various forms, it is customary in West Bengal to create elaborate dioramas of Durga slaying the demon Mahisha, of Kali drinking the blood of Rakhtabija, or of the terrifying goddess Chandi. However, growing numbers of Hindus are requesting less violent imagery for their pandals. They want Durga holding flowers instead of swords, discuses, spears. They’d like a clothed, smiling, less bloody Kali.

I have also been spending my Monday evenings learning to chant the Sri Rudram, a set of mantras from the Yajur Veda dedicated to Rudra, a destructive form of Shiva. Certain epithets have stood out to me: the Leader of Armies, the Spear-Wielder, the Angry One. And yet, he is still described as compassionate, loving, abiding in the hearts of all.

Even if we ignore these outwardly violent forms of isvara and turn to cuddly, big-bellied Ganesha, we must remember that his head was severed before he could have his famous elephant head – by his own father, no less. Lakshmi, who embodies all that is sweet, beautiful, healing, was born from a heated push-and-pull of devas and asuras; love was born from a difficult and painful churning. There is no running from aggression when we face God. Continue reading