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?
“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.
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.
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!
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
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
“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
Condensed version originally posted on Coming of Faith
During my last semester of college, I took a Theology class with Father Whalen. One day, he asked us, “If I told you that God would be here tomorrow, ready to meet with anyone who would come, right in Marillac Hall, first floor, would you go?” The question spurred students to think about their faith or doubt, their relationship with God, their guilt or their love.
But I was struck by the image of God that came to my mind when he asked that question: an old White man in a suit, sitting awkwardly in one of our typical classroom desks. As a Hindu, who grew up with hundreds and hundreds of images from which I might visualize what God looks like, why did I end up thinking of an old White man? Perhaps because that is generally what American culture tells us God looks like (aside from the occasional Morgan Freeman). I thought again, conjuring up another image, and Krishna, the beloved raincloud-dark god, came to mind. Though the image was more familiar, felt closer to what moved my heart when I thought of “God,” why again did I think of a male form? After Krishna, I thought of Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Surya, Ganesha, before any female forms like Durga or Kali came to mind. It seemed less because the image of keeping Kali pent up in a stuffy classroom would be a bad idea, and more because of something having to do with this word, “God.”
Is God an inherently gendered word?
I’ve always been a slow transitioner. I marvel at people who can wake up, and almost instantly hop out of bed to begin their day. First, my alarm rings. I turn it off, with my eyes closed. I keep my head under my pillow. Then, after about thirty seconds, I start to slowly take deeper, longer breaths. Then, I bring my head up above the pillow. After another few minutes, I shift my body to a different position, usually onto my left side. Finally, I open one eye, my right eye. My right eye has slightly weaker vision than my left, so I think that maybe if I open this eye first, the extra few minutes of looking at the world that it gets will make it stronger, somehow, over time. (This probably is not true.) After another minute or so, I open my left eye. This entire ordeal, from waking up to opening both of my eyes, takes fifteen to twenty minutes. After another ten minutes, I am ready to get out of bed.
My best friends know this about me. They tell me thirty, fifteen, and five minutes before we need to leave the house before going out. I don’t know why I didn’t take this into account when writing this article – I knew it was going to be a lot of work, that it would take a lot of internal questioning and moments of pause, but I thought I’d have it done within a couple of months. I began in late June of last year, and it is now June again.
This past year has been filled with transitions for me. I wanted to write something about transitioning from childhood to adulthood, but being in that period of time myself, I felt unsure of which experiences of mine I could trust, how to pull together all of the ideas I was getting from my academic research and from my spiritual knowing. Was spiritual knowing even something I could trust listening to? At the same time, I have had a lot of different changes in relationships since last June. Many relationships have been broken, some healed, some still in the process of healing, some may not be healed ever, or for quite some time. A slow transition indeed. Continue reading
People tend to have strong opinions about women and virginity. This piece was particularly hard to write for that reason. Within the past few months, as I was gathering research and materials for this article, I started meeting people who coincidentally wanted to speak to me about this very same topic. Some felt very strongly that virginity is an archaic construct. Sex, to them, is just another way of enjoying yourself, like eating ice cream or having a trip to the beach. How, when, and who it happens with is inconsequential, as long as there is mutual consent. The question of virginity being mediated by any other source, scriptural, cultural, or societal, seemed wrong and disempowering. I’ve met others who feel very strongly that virginity is part of a woman’s sexual currency. Until she has sex, she’s a more worthy mate or is more sought after by men. Waiting to have sex could mean increasing your value in the ‘marriage market.’ Others thought of virginity as a sacred thing, to be saved for a time and person whom you love dearly. Sexual chastity could also be seen as the only foolproof way of preventing the spread of STDs.
I was torn. I wanted to satisfy everyone with my writing, because the threat of overwhelming backlash is imminent when we engage in discussion on a topic like this, where people tend to have very strong and polarizing opinions. I feared how others might even view me, the author, for writing this. If I am a virgin, one might doubt that I have enough experience to write anything about virginity or sex, or I might just be dismissed as naïve or weird for being a virgin in my mid-twenties. On the other hand, if I am not a virgin, some people may judge me as being of “loose character,” that I am probably morally bereft, or may pity me for having made wrong decisions in life. Maybe I’m writing this to justify my sex life (or lack of one) in some way. Both ways, my voice might be dismissed due to a judgment made based on my status as virgin or non-virgin. Then I realized that speaking my truth was more important than what others might think of me.