The Slippery Slope

Urvashi-Pururavas_by_RRVIs it wrong to want to buy gold ornaments for our daughters? Is it wrong to want a bigger house? Is it okay to buy a fancy new car?

Ah, Desire! Always present, never satisfied, seemingly within our grasp, but always elusive. We talked about the nature of desire this week. Like fire, the Gita says, desire only grows fiercer when it is fed. So the idea that once we achieve the right position, status, or economic level, or we possess the right car, house, family, then we will finally be happy is completely and utterly false. We see proof of that all around us on a daily basis, especially among the suicidal rich and famous, who despite having all of the above, are unhappy enough to take their own lives. And yet, unsympathetic, we condemn them for their folly, thinking what could have been if only we were given the same opportunities.

One of our members wondered what was so bad about desire. Isn’t it important to want something in order to act? If we were all in a desireless state how would the world even function? A good question. If we look at the root cause of all action, good or bad, we find desire. We work because we desire money. We create families because we desire love and affection and stability. We acquire property because we desire comfort and luxury. We struggle to climb the social ladder because we want status and dignity. So if we didn’t desire any of these things what would happen? Why would anyone bother to work or even get an education? Wouldn’t the social fabric fall apart?

The Gita cautions us though, not to confuse duty with desire. Once we are born into the world, we have specific duties at each stage of our lives. Ideally, in our youth we study and learn, as adults we work and build a family, as we approach middle age, we begin to hand over the reins to the next generation, focusing on social service, and sharing our knowledge and wisdom, and as elders, we withdraw into a life of reflection and meditation. None of this comes under desire according to the Gita, but under our obligation as human beings living in the world.

In our discussion this week, we decided to further refine what desire meant to us. This theoretical debate was all well and good but how were we to apply this in our daily lives? We decided that based on the Gita, desire is dangerous because it leads to disappointment, which leads to anger, which leads to sorrow, all of which lead us from a state of balance to one of misery.

I was trying to think of a time when I let desire get the better of me. In recent times, it has been all about the job. That elusive position at a dream university. I’ve applied, year after year, hoping. I’ve been rejected year after year. My desire kept me coming back for more. Until last year, though I submitted my application routinely, not really expecting a response, I got one. A phone interview. I aced it. An on campus interview. It went well. By this time, desire had wrapped its tentacles around my heart, gripped me tightly in its embrace, until all I could think, speak and dream of was that offer. The days went by and nothing mattered but for the phone to ring. It didn’t. A week, two weeks, I kept myself going by imagining the delays in the hiring process, the need to check references, the busy schedules of the search committee. As long as I didn’t get a regret, there was hope. I didn’t know the letter had been sent to the wrong address. Until I finally got the call. My heart pounding, sure that the only reason they would call was to make the offer, I was told it was a follow up to the regret letter. A fittingly cruel end to a miserable three weeks. Looking back, it seems  it is best to avoid desire all together, squelch it at the very outset when it raises its sly head. Easier said than done.

Coming back to the question of whether it was wrong to want to buy things for our children or get a bigger house or enjoy our new cars, our little group decided that as long as we were able to keep our balance if any of those wishes were unfulfilled, then we were safe. It was only if we thought we simply couldn’t live without any of those things, that the world would stop if we couldn’t buy that house or drive that car, that we were entering dangerous territory. Of course this is a slippery slope. While most desires seem innocent enough at first, and easily relinquished, what the Gita is warning us about is how quickly what was once a whim can become a burning necessity and the cause of much agony.

Still, as householders living in a highly materialistic status conscious society, we have to start somewhere. Precarious as it may be, this is our current position, to entertain desires without being consumed by them. We’ll have to see how successful we are.

Image: Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Doing What Comes Naturally

Bhagavadgita-Arjuna-KrishnaWhen Arjuna announces that he would rather beg for a living than to destroy his enemies, Lord Krishna scolds him for his weakness. He reminds Arjuna that he is a warrior by nature and warriors are meant to fight. To assume the role of a beggar, however simple and passive it might seem, would go against everything that Arjuna was born and bred to do, which is to fight with evil and maintain justice.

Lord Krishna insists that everyone must follow their svadharma, their duty as determined by their nature, rather than paradharma, which is a duty that is not natural to them. People tend to interpret this passage as restrictive, urging a strict division between socioeconomic levels or castes. And as is usual with any religious texts, people have used such false interpretations over the ages to exploit and control both women and the less fortunate to keep rigid power structures intact.

We were confused by the verse at first, not sure if this was a good thing since it seemed to dictate a strict adherence to one’s path with no chance of expanding it or changing it.

It was only after I shared my confusion with my father, who happens to be a practicing sannyasi, that we found a clear and helpful explanation.

Svadharma is based on our innate nature. To help me understand, my father used his own life as an example. He said that his own nature was extremely rajasic or active. He wanted as a young man to save the world, discover new sources of energy, harness the sun, dig deep into the earth, all in attempts to find solutions to society’s problems. As he began his career as a research scientist and later became a director, he wanted to be top dog, to supervise and manage projects. As he got older and became more spiritual, he channeled that same drive for activity and management into working for the Hindu Temple, starting a health plan for retired Indians, or becoming a meditation center leader.

All the activities he indulged in were true to his rajasic nature. Going against that nature and deciding to be a monk before he was ready would have been foolish and painful, even though he was eager to go to the next stage and often asked his guru for the opportunity. His guru, being wise, kept advising him to wait, and to continue doing what came to him naturally. He knew what my father failed to realize at the time, that while becoming a monk might seem like the fastest and easiest route to liberation, it was not yet his nature to be still and engage in contemplation and prayer.

As my father continued doing his naturally driven duty of being active in the world and helping others in whatever way he could, but still practicing sadhana, reading scripture, following a guru and being devoted to God, he says Kramasannyasam or gradual progress occurred. That is, from saving the world, to serving God in various ways, to finally wanting to become one with God and letting go of all those outside activities, he now wanted only to be quiet, to meditate and do japa. As that finally happened, he no longer had to convince his guru that he was ready. His guru came to him and offered to initiate him into sannyasa.

As I began to finally understand the concept, my father continued, “Now let’s apply the same principle to you. If you were to come to me and say that you were ready to become a monk I would absolutely disagree, and here’s why. You started a Gita class six months ago with a small group. You meet every week and have discussions and do the homework. But that wasn’t enough. You also started a blog to spread the word to those who don’t attend. But that wasn’t enough either. You decided to start a second session and then a third.

This morning you contacted your aunts in India and Dubai  to guide them through installing the program so they could join as well. This is your nature. You like to teach and organize and disseminate knowledge. To fight that nature and sit quietly and meditate full time is not going to work for you.”

As it dawned on me just how strong my instinct for teaching is, compelling me to conduct three classes a week, during what is supposed to be my sabbatical and a break from my professorial duties,  my father continued.

“I am glad you are taking the time for prayer and meditation and scriptural study though. By continuing to do what you enjoy and what comes naturally to you, while you meditate and pray and perform selfless action with compassionate detachment, you will eventually move to the next step. This is what the Gita is urging.”

Nothing like a personal example to make things crystal clear! So, unlike Arjuna who was a warrior by nature, ready and armed to fight injustice, but in a moment of weakness, thinking it would be easier, wanted to throw down his weapons and beg for a living (paradharma),  we need to follow the svadharma of going through life, fulfilling our nature, rather than taking the easy way out, only to end up miserable. The only way to change and transform our nature is gradually, through sadhana. Eventually we will find our way.

It turns out then that this passage that has been misinterpreted so often and caused so much confusion is really not about castes and restrictions at all, but a blessing from a generous God to live out our true nature rather than trying to submerge it. The Gita urges us to be true to ourselves, while living with a sense of devotion and gratitude and a spirit of surrender, so that we can eventually rise above our human nature and discover the divinity within.

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Not So Fast! A Message from the Universe

Raja-Ravi-VarmakaliNow that we have three Gita classes, I’m enjoying the insights and contributions of all our members, learning what I can where I can.

Last week as we talked about how sorrow, fear and anger can drag us down and hold us back, one of our newest members said something really insightful. She argued that when an issue comes up repeatedly within one’s life, timidity, or depression, or hypersensitivity, or anger, when people remark on it, when friends advise us to work on it, when family members nag us over it, that we need to take that as a sign.

In this ongoing cycle of birth and death, she fancies, when our soul stands on the precipice,  about to reenter a brand new body and re-embark on this endless journey, we ask a favor of those souls who are traveling with us.

We ask them, she imagines, to remind us at least in this life, that we need to rid ourselves of those remaining imperfections. And so, when she is confronted by the people in her life who remind her, either through word or deed, through good intentions or bad, that she needs to work harder and be better, she takes it not as an affront to her dignity, but as a message from the universe, a message from her self appointed messengers. What a wonderful way to look at criticism or conflict!

I found her words to be full of wisdom and even shared it with the other groups. I was determined to take this same approach from now on, and recognize the hidden message in every conflict. Little did I realize how quickly I would be tested. That same evening, I found myself fuming, furious over a casual remark someone made about my son. While it was said in jest, I found it festering in my heart. Try as I might to apply the verses of the Gita, to remember to destroy the ego and the attachment to me and mine, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Despite imagining that I had left behind all those petty sensitivities, my primal mother instinct rushed to the fore and I was ready to do battle to defend his reputation, which I imagined, falsely, was in grave danger.

After trying and failing to suppress my emotions, I sat down and wrote an email to the person who made the remark, questioning their need to make it, their motive in saying such things, and hotly defending my son’s principles and character. Fortunately, she didn’t take offense, though she was bewildered by my reaction, explaining how she was making an affectionate joke and laughing with him, not at him.

I suppose I can take some comfort in the fact that my mental turmoil vanished very quickly once I knew what she meant. Still, the incident left me feeling rather chastened. I was clearly nowhere near as advanced as I had been hoping and the all encompassing, overwhelming, protective maternal instinct was apparently still present in full force, merely masquerading as compassionate detachment until an occasion presented itself to open its gaping maw and destroy any threat, real or perceived.

I thought about what our wise new member had said about messages and messengers. Surely, this incident was a message, and my unsuspecting friend was the messenger. I obviously need to think more clearly and keep my emotions in check when it comes to my son. Yes, he is my only child, and I went through hell and back trying to raise him and keep him safe when he was younger, but he is all grown up now, smart, successful, and fully capable of taking care of himself. The kind of blind fury and protectiveness that comes over me in these instances is neither rational, spiritual, nor healthy. It is a combination of anger, fear and sorrow that drags me into a much lower plane of consciousness.

Taking a cue from my wise group member, I am now grateful to my friend and open to the message she was carrying. This is something I definitely have to work on. Leave it to the universe to take me down a peg as I scramble willy nilly for the ultimate prize. If I intend to take on the aspect of  Kali the Goddess, destroying my enemies, then I need to focus my energy on  stamping out my inner demons, not those who cross my path bringing a message of growth that I am clearly in need of. “Not so fast, my friend,” comes the sharp reminder from above.” There is still a lot of work to do.”

Image: Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Leading an Exemplary Life

Shakuntala_RRV“How can we set an example, when we barely know what we are doing?” This was the response from our group to the Gita’s injunction this week, which asked that we not only perform our duties, but do so in an exemplary manner, one which inspires and informs others.

Yes, it’s true we are novices on this journey. We are trying to figure out and implement week by week the teachings of the Gita, teachings that seem to be getting progressively more difficult. What gives us the right to lead when we ourselves are lost?

I think the idea here is not that we must attain perfection before we can model proper behavior. The idea is that since we are compelled to work, to fulfill our duties, then it behooves us to fulfill them in such a manner that we can educate those around us. Even our struggles then become an example.

The fact that we are spending an hour each week, delving into the mysteries of the Gita together come what may, the stubborn effort we are showing in practicing the sometimes difficult assignments despite failing repeatedly, the fact that we are prioritizing our spiritual growth, are all messages to those around us that we find this important and valuable and fulfilling enough to keep pursuing.

As a result, the Gita class we began five months ago multiplied this week into three different sessions. We now have three different groups, each with their own set of members, with their own backgrounds and challenges to overcome, with their own goals to reach. It’s been a wonderful eye opening experience for me to navigate those groups this past week, to see the similarities and the differences, and the universal thirst for happiness that binds us all despite disparities in age, background and life experience.

I like to think that our original group, novices as we are, has set an example, merely by existing. Our struggles and our questions, documented on this blog, have highlighted our journey and its value. While not everyone will see that value, our job is to continue to struggle and at the same time inspire. So despite the fact that we are not perfect, and are far from realized, I see why the Gita demands us to lead by example and to live a life that, in the transparency of its struggle to reach the goal, as Satya Sai Baba always insisted, itself becomes the message.

We realized this week that this idea of an exemplary life should pervade not just the spiritual struggle but every facet of our daily lives. Our homework was to live each day as if we were living in a bubble, our very own reality show, each action being observed and serving as an example to the world. How would we act in any given situation if we knew we were being watched and possibly emulated? Can we lose our temper so easily? Can we watch mindless television for quite so many hours? Can we indulge in gluttony? What would change? What would we do better? What would we stop doing?

Leading an exemplary life, it seems,  is not the domain of the perfect or the realized. It is the duty of every spiritual seeker, a heavy responsibility to be sure, but one that allows us to examine our own actions on a constant basis, a basic prerequisite for any meaningful progress.

Image: Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Food for Thought

Raja_Ravi_Varma_-_Sankaracharya (1)It isn’t often that the Gita makes me jump from my chair and run to make amends, but this week’s verses delivered such a jolt that I had to take immediate action.

It was a Tuesday afternoon and I sat in my very comfortable reading chair, legs up on the padded footstool, sipping a hot cup of tea, eating an avocado tomato sandwich, and going over the verses for this week’s class. Outside the window was the comforting hum of the lawnmower as the gardener made his rounds of the backyard.

Imagine my discomfort when the first thing I read was that eating without offering to another, whether God or a fellow being, was not only selfish, it amounted to cooking up and consuming sin. This had a terrible effect on my appetite. As I kept reading in dismay, the Gita went on to explain why this kind of ingratitude for all the good things we receive, including food, shelter, air, water, love, kindness, is one of the greatest of sins, binding us forever to a mortal existence.

To truly show how grateful we are for what was never ours to begin with, we need to share it, to offer it to others, before we consume it selfishly on our own. This made perfect sense. I immediately dropped the sandwich I was eating, unable to swallow another bite, and ran to the pantry, determined to share something with my gardener and his family. All I could find was an unopened bag of kidney beans from the Indian store, which I had intended to make into rajma one of these days when I got around to it. I took the bag outside and called the gardener’s wife over, and when she happily accepted, came back in relieved that I could now eat my sandwich without guilt.

Still, while I just happened to find a quick way to relieve my guilt and enjoy my meal, it occurred to me just how rarely we practice the attitude of being grateful and sharing our good fortune.

In class, we talked about being thankful for each new day, for each opportunity to share with others and show our gratitude. We have made it a practice to give thanks the moment we wake up, and offer our day to God. We offer thanks before each meal and offer that as well. And once again, before we sleep, we thank God for the opportunity we have been given. What we realized this week, however, was that it is not enough merely to give thanks and practice gratitude, but that we need to give of ourselves and practice sacrifice as well.

Our homework for this week is to find at least one way to help someone else each day, not only by offering them food or money, but by showing sympathy, kindness, love, attention, support, or giving the gift of our time.

I read somewhere that the greatest gift one human being can receive from another is that of spiritual wisdom. The next best thing is education and the means to survive. Unfortunately, the kind of charity we all tend to practice, that of giving a donation, is the least valuable, since it keeps the other dependent and still unable to better their circumstances.

As an educator, it makes me happy to know that I have the means to share academic knowledge and help others access opportunity. And while I am far from a spiritual teacher, I hope that this blog where I document our struggles and journey, counts as some small attempt to share garnered wisdom.

As for day to day charity, I can only remember that whatever I do solely for myself and my pleasure sets a sure path to bondage, while whatever I can spare for others, be it as simple as a like on a facebook post, a kind word when they are down, a meal or a pair of clothes, allows me to express gratitude for all the blessings I have been showered with and brings me forward on the path to liberation.

Image: Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Sensory Overload

Raja_Ravi_Varma,_The_Maharashtrian_Lady“Is it wrong to want to experience new things, especially when we may never get the chance to do so again?”

A question from one of our members who just returned from a trip to Amsterdam. She shared her internal conflict and wondered if by giving in, by enjoying all the sights and smells and tastes her trip had to offer, she had gone against the precept of controlling one’s senses.

The Gita says that the senses are merely doing their job. Our five sense organs are meant specifically for the purpose of tasting, touching, seeing, smelling and listening. By themselves the senses have no power except to relay information. The culprit, according to the Gita, is the mind, which takes that information and turns it into experience, and then becomes attached to that experience, and then craves more of it. All the sensory experiences we have are distilled by the mind into pleasure and pain, and then either craved or avoided according to its category.

The mind attaches fear, excitement, longing, delight and despair to each of these experiences and drags us along accordingly either toward or away from those emotions.

The key then, to continue experiencing the world through the senses,  but still remain unaffected, is to control and calm the mind. If the mind no longer becomes excited by every experience, no longer attaches itself to pleasure or becomes despondent at every negative stimulus, then life is peaceful and harmonious.

To walk the streets of Amsterdam and not enjoy the picturesque canals and the masterpieces of Van Gogh would be foolish. I still remember the tea made with fresh peppermint that warmed us on a cold October afternoon and the wonderful cheese and honey waffles on my own trip last year. And while a traveler’s curiosity might lead one to explore the Red Light District or the famous cafes where every grade of marijuana is freely available, this doesn’t mean you have to engage in indiscretions or become a pothead. The world is full of temptations and sensory overload. Since we cannot shut these out, nor are we required to, we have to learn to be observers both of the world and of ourselves, silent witnesses to the constant flow of information, unaffected and implacable. This allows us to be in the world, but not overwhelmed by it.

We talked this week about how the mind changes as well, as we progress. According to Swami Chinmayananda, when we interact with each other, it is the texture of one another’s mind and intellect that we recognize and connect with. When the texture of our mind changes, through experience, through growth, through wisdom, we tend to be attracted to those who are similar and gradually move away from those who are not. This really resonated with me.

I have found myself moving away from those whose company I enjoyed thoroughly just a few years ago. I’ve wondered why, have struggled with guilt, worried about becoming anti-social since my friends haven’t changed at all. But now I realize that is precisely why. They haven’t changed, and I have.

They wonder what’s come over me, why I no longer want to hang out, why I’m no longer “fun”. But I don’t find dirty jokes amusing, I’m no longer into comparing sarees or jewelry, no longer into swooning over Bollywood stars or male models, completely uninterested in clubbing or drinking or gossiping about other people. And while I can pretend to go along, it has become more and more difficult since my heart’s not in it. Perhaps age has something to do with it, perhaps after a certain amount of experience the mind becomes satiated. Or perhaps, as I would like to believe, I am beginning to realize that temporary pleasures don’t lead to permanent happiness.

One of our group members reminded me during class that while the texture of my mind may have changed, this didn’t automatically make me superior. I am merely choosing a different path to get to the ultimate goal and the Gita reminds us repeatedly that there are many routes to the same destination. What is most important, however, whichever route we choose, whether we plunge into sensory experience and remain unaffected or withdraw gradually from outer distractions, is to keep our minds clear, calm and always focused on the goal.

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Lord Ganesha

The Story of Lord Ganesha: The Elephant God

512px-Ganesh_on_his_vahana,_a_mouse_or_ratThe story of Ganesha is one of the most colorful in Hindu religion. Ganesha, the elephant-headed God, with his pot belly and the tiny mouse for his conveyance,  is an object at once of ridicule and reverence. However comic his appearance may be, Ganesha is worshipped as lord of wisdom, and remover of all obstacles. He is worshipped first before Laxmi or Siva or Vishnu and it is only after appeasing him that the other puja may begin.

Ganesha’s story is at once tragic and comic, heart rending and ludicrous and is perhaps why it is so easily identified with by the masses. For Ganesha is the ultimate protagonist, one who is diligent and persevering, who undergoes unwarranted suffering and shame and is finally redeemed and given his rightful place. Although the story is familiar to most, how Parvati while her husband Shiva is away, makes a beautiful boy from flour and water and sets him guard at her door, how Shiva returns eager to meet his consort and is affronted by the sincere child who will not let him pass, how Lord Shiva in a rage, chops off the innocent’s head and how Parvati when emerging from her bath to see the tragic outcome, becomes distraught, leading Shiva to fetch an elephant’s head to replace the lost head of Ganesha, and bring him back to life.


Eventually Ganesha is made lord of wisdom by his parents and each year on Ganesh Chathurti, people worship the elephant headed God, who is appealed to by every student before examinations, to anyone who faces obstacles or challenges and to all those who begin a new venture.

But what is the symbolism behind this story and what is it that is being taught?  For we often forget that behind the colorful, passionate or even violent fables and characters in Hindu mythology, there is always an underlying message, a deep and profound lesson to be learned which reflects the highest philosophical truth.

What often happens in the telling and retelling of myth is that the original meaning gets lost beneath the sensational and shocking events themselves. Children are frightened by the paternal rage which leads to Ganesha’s head being chopped off, and they laugh at the episode where Ganesha bursts open and all the various sweets come tumbling out. It is hard for them to respect this God who apparently has no control over events or over his own body. Often in an attempt to inculcate a blind respect for God, we override the subtleties of meaning which myth contains. Ganesha, Kumaraswamy, Shiva, Parvati, all are various aspects of one’s self. No one aspect needs to  be worshipped or revered blindly, but must be given its appropriate place in one’s development. It is only when we understand this that we can gain the most insight from these beautiful stories.

According to Swami Prajnanananda, the story of Ganesha is nothing more than the story of the soul’s struggle to attain salvation.  Parvati in this story represents the spiritual seeker in all of us, that part of us which wishes and struggles to reach realization.

In an attempt to reconcile with God, as represented by Shiva, Parvati works sincerely or meditates and the fruit of that meditation is Ganesha.  Once having achieved some success, however, the seeker becomes egotistical. Parvati is proud of her accomplishment and dotes upon her “son” giving him supreme power to guard her consciousness, the doorway through which God must enter, not allowing for the inexperience, the ignorance and the blindness of this child, the ego.  Setting her ego at the door, she becomes immersed in other activities. And so it is no surprise, that when the time to merge with God finally arrives, and He arrives at her doorstep, her brash and overly confident ego confronts Him, refusing him entry, unable to recognize God.

Since it is only through destruction or elimination of the ego that God can be realized, Shiva, in his infinite love for the seeker, chops off the head which denies Him entry and hurls it away. At last, Shiva and Parvati can reunite. But the seeker is left distraught by the destruction of her spiritual gain and so Shiva replaces the ego with the spirit of learning and breath control which is represented by the elephant’s head.

The long trunk of the elephant symbolizes the importance of breath control, while its huge, flappy ears represent the receptive attitude necessary for the intake of valuable knowledge. It is through yoga, which involves breath control, and the guidance and learning imparted by the guru to a willing initiate, that one gains wisdom and liberation. According to Swami Prajnanananda, “What is received or imbibed is only learning, it is when that learning is perceived as actual truth that wisdom is born.”

The myth of Ganesha does not end with his coming back to life. Shiva and Parvati eventually have another son, Kumaraswamy.

muruganThis young god is the antithesis of his elder brother. While Ganesha is studious, absorbed in learning and meditation, Kumaraswamy is active, physically fit, handsome and alert. When the time comes to select who is fit for the position of lord of wisdom, Kumaraswamy challenges the obese and sedentary Ganesha’s right.  Being the more active, heroic, and personable of the two he feels he should be selected.

Shiva then sets a test for the two brothers. He asks that they make a pilgrimage of all the holy places and whoever comes back first would be the winner. Kumaraswamy sets off in high style on his peacock sure of success, but is amazed when he sees his brother preceding him wherever he goes. Defeated, he comes back to find that Ganesha has never stirred from Kailasha except to circle Shiva and Parvati themselves, knowing as a result of study and meditation, that within them is contained the entire universe. Having proven his superiority, Ganesha is crowned lord of wisdom.
This part of the story shows how intellect and deep meditation are vastly superior and more effective than physical strength and furious activity. But the beauty of Indian mythology is the various gradations of meaning and truth contained within its fables. The story continues…there is more to be gleaned from its content.

After being crowned lord of wisdom, and after his brother is crowned commander in chief, Ganesha indulges in feasting. So greedily does he devour the sweets and fried food that while making obeisance to his parents, he is unable to keep his balance.

The moon, perched on Shiva’s head, cannot help but laugh at his sad predicament, and in the same instant, poor Ganesha’s belly explodes resulting once again in his demise. The moon is cursed by Parvati for his insolence and Ganesha is brought back to life, but what is important here is the need for balance that is being stressed.

Shiva and Parvati have two sons. Ganesha, however superior in intellect, is unduly sedentary and completely ignores his physical well being. Gluttony and lack of physical exercise take their toll and he becomes an object of ridicule as well as endangering his own life. Kumaraswamy, the epitome of total control over the senses and body,  on the other hand, is obsessed with physical prowess. This leads to vanity, arrogance and a lack of mental growth. What is needed then, is a balance between the two. Neither alone can be completely successful. Meditation and physical exercise, learning and activity, and a tolerance and respect for difference, all combine to make one a truly wise and enlightened being.

Image: Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Is it Working?

Mohini_on_a_swingOnce in a while, it’s important to stop and see if what we are doing is working. We meet once a week online, we read and discuss the verses, sometimes we argue vehemently over interpretations but at the end of each session we part feeling as though we’ve accomplished something meaningful. Like we’ve made some progress in figuring out who we are and where we’re going.

But are we? Are we truly any wiser when we sign off than when we signed on? Or do we mistake the satisfaction of having voiced our opinions and our doubts, for real understanding?

Too often I’ve been in groups and centers and meetings, where people gather with good intentions and noble goals. Too often, I’ve seen them disintegrate into sessions where members display their ego through pedantic knowledge, or become emotional over personal suffering, or simply descend into gossip and criticism, where gatherings in the name of meditation or worship or study turn into potlucks and gossip sessions and fashion shows, where spiritual progress becomes an arena for competition and one-upmanship. Even all this would be bearable, if the people involved were truly progressing as a result. But this is seldom the case.

So after 15 weeks of the Gita, I thought it best to pause and reflect on how far our little group has come. We have discussed becoming compassionately detached, we’ve vowed to master our egos and our desires, and we have decided to perform all our duties without regard to the fruit of our actions. How successful have we been in implementing these teachings and resolves? While I cannot speak for  others,  I can certainly look at my own state of mind and measure our success in terms of my progress.

Last week, my son called me with bad news. He had ruptured his plantar fascia, a tendon in his foot, which while not terribly serious, was enough to keep him from completing his surgery rotation since it involved standing for 15 hours a day. He was deeply disappointed and despite all efforts to convince the hospital that he could manage, was put on medical leave until his foot healed. This meant that his surgery rotation would be postponed and that he would have to complete another rotation during fourth year.

If this had happened just a few months ago, I would have been panic stricken. I would have added to my son’s disappointment by bemoaning his fate, by turns urging him to convince the director, and worrying myself to death over his foot and how he would manage alone on the opposite coast.

As it is, I was able to remain calm, to assure him that things would work out, and that he should balance the need to heal his foot with the need to complete his rotations. I like to think that while I may or may not have helped him by remaining calm, I at least didn’t upset him further.

How did I manage this superhuman feat? By reminding myself that we had discussed being compassionately detached. My son is not my possession but an individual atma on his own journey. Like all of us, he will face some disappointments and challenges in his life. He needs to continue doing his best without being devastated by obstacles. The only thing really in his or my power is to keep working toward our goals, while remaining calm despite the results.

I wrote last week about the ego. It is a topic that is especially dear to me since I tend to suffer from an overinflated sense of dignity. I take it very hard when people insult me or demean me or my loved ones in any way. But the Gita says we need to let things go, that it is our sense of self-importance that leads to hurt feelings and misery.

Well this week, I had a chance to put my humility and tolerance to the test. In my work for my nonprofit, I’ve had to face a few rebuffs, have had to ask for donations or favors and be either ignored or dismissed, much to my dismay. This week, I asked for a chance to publicize my fundraising event at another event and rather than simply refusing, the person decided to write me a very long letter detailing my presumptuousness, my unmitigated gall, and my complete lack of decency in making such a request. It was seriously one of the longest and most detailed emails I’ve read in some time. It laid out paragraph by paragraph why I didn’t deserve the privilege of being allowed to hand out flyers, how unworthy I was of such an honor and how selfish it was of me to try to hijack another event to publicize mine.

Now, I know myself. Just a few weeks ago, I would have burst a blood vessel at receiving such an unwarranted stream of insults. I would have fumed and fretted, made myself ill over the perceived injury and poured all the eloquence of my Ph.D. in English into writing a biting and vitriolic response that would shut my opponent up forever. I’m happy to say that I didn’t. Instead, I read it through a couple of times, acknowledged the other person’s viewpoint, was amused by the size of their ego and their territoriality, and moved on.

At the risk of feeding my own newly diminished ego,  I am quite proud of both these accomplishments. They may be small in the larger scope of things, but they prove to me that what we have been doing is actually working in our day to day lives. Real sadhana involves practicing what we study, living it on a daily basis. Other group members have shared similar stories with me over the past few weeks, their increasing ability to let go, to remain calm, to be more forgiving.

As a group of women working hard to understand how to live a happy, productive life and maintain mental peace while making spiritual progress, we seem to be making tiny strides forward week by week. And despite my best efforts to heed the Gita and remain unmoved by pain or by pleasure, I have to admit that this fact makes me extraordinarily happy.

Image: Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Ego Maniac

Raja_Ravi_Varma,_Reclining_WomanThis week, we completed Samkhya Yoga, the second chapter of the Gita. As we summed up what we had learned, we recounted the necessary qualities to attain peace. One of them is to relinquish the possessiveness that comes from one’s ego. It had never really occurred to me before this that the ego is the root cause of all our troubles.

I have always thought of the ego as a sense of pride, of doership, of claiming superiority or accomplishment. I know that the ego can be hurt or deflated and that too much ego leads to a superiority complex and thinking poorly of others. It was clear to me that the ego is a dangerous thing, to be closely watched so it doesn’t run rampant and ride roughshod over the feelings of others. Humility, it seemed to me, was the antidote, knowing our limitations and seeing the potential in others.

This week’s reading showed me a much more insidious and dangerous aspect of the ego, one I had never really considered. The ego causes us to claim not only what we accomplish as ours, but it also causes us to claim the people in our lives, husband, children, friends, as ours. This feeling of me and mine in turn leads to a sense of ownership that can become a stranglehold on those we supposedly love and cause them and ourselves great misery.

My ego for example preens over the fact that I have a Ph.D. and that I have a tenured position at a university. “You did it, it tells me. You overcame all those odds and survived. Not only that, you achieved your childhood dream of becoming a professor despite all the curve balls life threw at you. You are one special woman!”

How is this harmful? Isn’t it all true? Isn’t this kind of self-esteem beneficial to keep one going and to succeed? To a certain extent, we need to believe in ourselves, true. But when that ego begins to tell me that because I have made it against all odds, then everyone should be able to, and that those who don’t are simply weak and failures, we have a problem.

My ego tells me that I am a good mother, that I raised a young boy alone and that he turned out well. Does this give me license to condemn single mothers who due to circumstances beyond their control, such as poverty or lack of education or lack of support, watch helplessly as their children join gangs or become criminals despite all their hard work?

When my son does well in pursuing a difficult profession, my ego expands, stroked by the compliments of friends and neighbors who express their admiration. “You did this,” it whispers proudly. “You got him through those tough teenage years, you supported his dreams, you sacrificed for his sake.” Does this give me the right to condemn him if he fails along the way or chooses a less recognized occupation? Does it give me the right to cut him out of my life or treat him with contempt because he didn’t live up to my expectations?

When my husband is on stage, and the crowd gives him a standing ovation, my ego prances peacock-like on its own inner stage, claiming the credit for being a supportive wife, for inspiring him to keep performing, for pushing him to never give up. Does this give me the right to treat him like dirt when things don’t go so well, when the gigs dry up, when he doesn’ t meet with the success I feel he deserves?

In this day and age, when the ego feeds on how many likes we get for our facebook posts, it’s very hard to keep focused on the idea that who we are is not how we look, what we own, or how much money, fame or prestige we earn. Instead, the Gita reminds us, we need to relinquish the ego altogether, neither prancing and preening when life puffs us up with success, nor suffering and wallowing when deflated by disappointment.

Image: Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Worship Woes

Ravi_Varma-LakshmiHow important is worship? Do we need to perform the elaborate rites and rituals we were taught when we were young? It was the day before Varalakshmi Puja and our members were concerned.

Varalakshmi Puja is the worship of Laxmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity. It is performed by married women and is meant to benefit our husbands and bring them good fortune.

Like most pujas, it demands preparation. The house needs to be spotlessly clean, floors mopped, counters scrubbed. There are materials to gather, flowers, coconuts, fruits, nuts, ingredients for the prasad or food offering that must be cooked on the day of the puja after bathing. Hair must be washed, silver must be polished, there’s decorating to do and all this takes time and effort. This is the way we were taught growing up, how our families celebrated festivals when we were young, with lots of preparation, lots of hustle and bustle, lots of sweets to eat and guests to entertain.

And now, even though we are thousands of miles from our childhood homes, we seek to recreate that festive tradition for ourselves and our children, and feel tremendously guilty when our efforts don’t quite match up. We remind ourselves that our parents and their parents had a vast network, a support system of family, relatives, servants, who made things happen. We bemoan the fact that we are on our own, often holding a full time job outside the home, and that multiple responsibilities are constantly demanding our attention. And so, as happened last night in our group, the act of worship becomes almost burdensome, a duty that needs to be fulfilled for fear of a guilty conscience.

It seems to me that far from being a dreaded obligation, worship and its attending rituals should be a divine pleasure, to be indulged in not to please either God or the world, but to provide us with a period of deep and intimate connection with our inner source. When I perform the Varalakshmi Vratam, which I do each year, I imagine it as a special date with my inner Goddess.

The morning begins with sweeping and mopping the floors, which I visualize as sweeping aside all the foolish thoughts and desires that usually run rampant in my head. Then I bathe and wash my hair, a further outer cleansing to prepare the mind to be clear and still.

I take the carved silver bowl set aside for that purpose and go into the garden to pick flowers. There is something immensely tranquil about the act of picking flowers for worship. Red hibiscus, bright yellow marigolds, purple clematis, white roses vying for my attention from the waving branches, asking to be picked for this special honor.

Then I clean the puja room, wiping each framed portrait, each silver figure until they sparkle. I put fresh sandalwood and kumkum on each.

I light the incense to purify the air. I light the oil lamp to awaken my dormant spirit.

I lovingly wash the coconut I have picked out ahead of time, shaking it to be sure it is filled with water, and making sure it is perfectly proportioned, with an oval shape.

I mix turmeric with water and cover my coconut in the yellow paste. Then I draw on the eyebrows, the eyes, I shape the nose from wet turmeric paste, I draw on the rosebud lips.

I place the coconut on top of the silver pot or kalasha. Then I decorate the beautiful face with my jewelry, earrings, a necklace, a large round bottu.

Finally I drape a sari around the pot and the coconut, creating a lovely goddess all my own. I invoke the Universal Spirit to enter this form and accept my tribute.

I chant the mantras and perform the puja, ringing the bell and offering the flame during arati. With each flower and rice grain I toss, I offer up my ego and ask for liberation. When I am done, I lay out freshly prepared tamarind rice and curd rice as my final offering.

Yes, it’s a lot of work. It takes up my entire morning. But it gives me tremendous pleasure. For the entire time, I am immersed in my love of the goddess, my inner atma finding refuge in the infinite Atman. Each act is an offering, a cleansing and a tribute. There is no room for any other thought and so my mind becomes one pointed, focused, at peace.

The point of Hindu worship it seems to me is to attain that one pointed focus. Whether we perform rituals or sit in deep silent meditation, whether we indulge in charitable acts or we imbibe knowledge, we are seeking peace and harmony.

In the Gita this week, we read that a peaceful mind is the precursor to happiness. So while it may seem sometimes in the frenzy of daily activity that the rituals we grew up with are a burden, they are in fact the opposite. There are no repurcussions for not performing them if we are pressed for time. They are by no means required or obligatory, for surely God can do just fine without our paltry offerings.

Instead, like many practices in Hindu tradition, they are there for the specific purpose of purifying the mind. By keeping us focused and absorbed in God consciousness, worship, if we can make the time for it, becomes a shortcut to the peace we all long so desperately to attain.

Image: Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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