One foot in each world.

Over the past year and a half, a lot has happened in regards to LGBT rights in the United States. Namely that same-sex marriage was federally legalized. However, there are new challenges that have come up. Specifically in regards to Transpeople and a seemingly new wave of violence against LGBT. I myself, while being gay, tend to be politically moderate and stay out of queer identify politics and act mostly as an observer. In doing that, I realized something about myself.

As a gay man who is also Hindu, I occupy a strange place. While I exist and navigate both worlds, a part of me knows that I may not fully be “a part of” each community either.

Let me go further into detail.

On the gay side, there is a lot of confusion as to why someone who is gay would ever believe in God or belong to a religious community. There is a lot of hurt that LGBT people have faced from religion, and in the US, non-Abrahamic religions aren’t really well known; or there are a lot of misconceptions about them. It doesn’t matter that I don’t believe in hell, or that Devi/God thinks I’m evil. Religion is still religion and religion hates LGBT. Furthermore, since I don’t show off my sexuality or wear it on my sleeve, I’ve been called “self-hating” who “wants to go back in the closet” and “live a life of heteronormative privilege” (whatever that is). When Hinduism is talked about, more often times than not it is seen as a very conservative faith that doesn’t celebrate sexuality (and in a lot cases that is kind of true).

 
On the flipside, I can never really be “open” in the Hindu world. I know that there are many opened minded Hindus, and that temple isn’t really a place for “showing off” ones personal life, but it would be amazing to bring my future husband and not have it be a general issue. Or, even better, to have a big, stereotypical South Indian wedding in a big temple with all of the traditional pomp and circumstance. Of course, such weddings exist, but they are still met with contention from a lot of people. Even the reaction to my friend’s viral engagment was generally mixed.

In this, I find myself occupying a kind of limbo. Almost like a representative for both sides when the circumstance calls for it. On the LGBT side it’s to show that, even though I’m fairly religious, that I’m not some self-hating homophobe who worships snakes or cows. On the Hindu side, for those who know I’m gay anyway, it’s to show that I’m not an evil person who is out to “destroy Hindu culture” or only engages in “illicit relations”.

Yet, at the same time, I only really have one foot in each world. I don’t need affirmation in either my sexuality or faith, but they are still a part of my being and while I have no internal issue with either, trying to navigate through both communities can be uneventful at best or daunting at worst. In a way, perhaps it’s a blessing and not so much a curse. I know where I stand and am building a strong foundation which doesn’t need constant adulation from others (the irony of making this post not being lost on me).

I know who I am and that’s all one can really ask for.

Sri Vaishnavism in a nutshell (or, a more detailed description of my beliefs).

In this post, I went over what is that I believed and how it was a combination of months of doubt and personal searching. This time, I want to get into some of the personal details about the specifics of my beliefs. Some of which are perfectly in line with Vadakalai orthodoxy; and some of which are my own understanding or interpretation. Some things I can’t talk about, as they are strictly between guru and shishya (student), but I can talk about quite a few aspects of my faith which can easily be found in one’s own research.

Like I mentioned last time, I was initiated as a Sri Vaishnava. Sri Vaishnavism is a form of Vaishnavism most commonly found in southern India. It’s the oldest of the 4 established Vaishnava Samparadayas (with the other 3 being the Madhva, Nimbarka, and Vallabha sampradaya) and it considers Narayana as the Supreme God. Alongside the Vedas, the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Ramayana, and various Puranas are some of the central scriptures. However, one of the defining scriptural characteristics of Sri Vaishnavism are the devotional poems of the Alwars; which are collected in in what is known as the Divya Prabhandham.

Sri Ramanuja is considered to be the most important earthly figure of this school and he propagated what is known as Visishtadvaita. Visishtadvaita, like the more commonly known Advaita, is a form of non-dualism. However, unlike Advaita, it states that we are both similar to and different from God. Like how the sun’s rays are of the same essence, but have their own unique characteristics. This is what’s commonly known as “qualified non-dualism”, which the closest western equivalent would probably be Panentheism.

 

There are two major philosophical schools in Sri Vaishnavism: Thenkalai and Vadakalai. Both are similar in a lot of ways, but both do have some major differences.

In the most simplest of examples:

 

Thenkalai:

  • Follow the teachings of Pillai Lolacharya and Manavala Mamunigal, in addition to Ramanuja.
  • Place almost exclusive devotion on Vishnu, believing Lakshmi to be a Maha-Jiva; only being evaluated to her status because of Narayana.
  • Place great emphasis of the poetry and works of the Alwars. So much so that their devotional works are used extensively in rites, puja, and other liturgies. The Vedas, Upanishads, Gita, etc. are still important, but the Alwars are given great importance.
  • Saranagati (surrender to God) is not only the ultimate goal, but it’s the only “whole” way to worship God.
  • God’s grace is likened to a mother cat carrying her kitten: we are wholly dependent on God for Moksha and nothing else.

Vadakalai

  • Follow the teachings of Vedanta Desika, in addition to Ramanuja.
  • Place equal devotion to Lakshmi and Vishnu, believing her to be as important in the process of creation as Narayana.
  • While the Alwars and their works are important, Sanskrit texts (like the Vedas, Upanishads, etc.) are extensively used.
  • Saranagati is the ultimate goal, but yogas like Bhakti, Karma, and Jnana can aid people in their process to surrender.
  • God’s grace is like a monkey carrying her baby: while we are dependent, we also have to put in our effort and hold on tight.

 

I was initiated Vadakalai and have recently come full circle back to it after looking into the more esoteric forms of Shaktism. 

I still believe that Narayana is Brahman, but that Shakti (Lakshmi) is what animates the process of creation, preservation, and destruction. Simply put, without Shakti, God has no means to do His processes. Just like how if a body doesn’t have a soul (or brain activity), it is not alive. Because of this, my devotion has gone to primarily Lakshmi, her incarnations, and towards the Hindu Goddesses in general. Including those whose presence is generally lacking in Vadakalai (like Durga).

I’ve incorporated a lot more Shakta scriptures into my practice and hold them in as high regard as solely Vaishnava scriptures. I can just as readily read the Devi Mahatmya as I would the Bhagavad Gita. A key scripture to my understanding of Sri and Narayana as the absolute is the Lakshmi Tantra.

I’ve stopped trying to be such a hardline traditionalist and have allowed myself some breathing room in my practice. One of my problems was that I always compared myself spiritually to others. If I saw someone who did everything that they were supposed to, and then see how frankly lazy I often am, I felt lesser in my spirituality. Which in turn caused a downward spiral of guilt and shame. It also doesn’t help that, in the past few weeks, I’ve come to the realization that this is very much a westerner issue when it comes to Hinduism. That is, compartmentalizing what is “right and wrong” and viewing such a foreign way of doing things through a very western lens. It’s one of my many issues with ISKCON, actually.

Which brings me to a point of contention with many other Sri Vaishnavas: I don’t necessarily believe in doing things just for the sake of doing them. I’m supposed to chant and do a ritual called Sandhyavadanam everyday, but I don’t always. I at least try to chant, but I don’t always do the prescribed ritual. Rituals and tradition are important, but if they are being done for the sake of being done and without good faith, then what is ultimately the point? As I make my way to Saranagati, I can only hope that the want and need to do these rituals comes. But for now, I can’t force myself to do these things without feeling that I’m doing them for a false reason.

Overall, I’m not a very good initiate, but doing so has brought some big changes in my life. I finally went vegetarian, I learned more about what it is I believe and why I believe, and I’m always looking forward to when I can be in association with a Hindu community (the town where i do to school doesn’t have a temple for at least an hour and a half away). Did I rush into formally joining a tradition? Yes, absolutely, but it is something that I don’t regret. It just means that there is an entire lifetime of learning, mistakes, trials, and triumphs to experience.

What are my religious beliefs? A general overview.

Over the past 3-ish years, I have started and restarted blogs with varying degrees of (non) success. Each one reflecting what I, at varying times, felt accurately related to my spiritual or ideological beliefs.

The first time around as a left-leaning Buddhist.

The second time around as an Advaita Hindu.

Now, as a center right-ish Vadakalai Hindu.

How did I get to this point? What is it that I believe now and how does it differ from even a year ago.

Like I had mentioned in my previous post , in 2014 I began the initiation process of formally coming into Hinduism. Specifically as a Vadakalai Sri Vaishnava. I received Upanayana (the sacred thread) into studying the Vedas and learning rituals. I was at a bit of a disadvantage in this, because this happened when I was 23. Boys who get this in India, historically, got it when they were much younger. Additionally, they grew up surrounded by the culture and experience it fully. I would be lying if I said I didn’t struggle (or still struggle) with my spiritual life since receiving the thread, but I pushed forward for the first year and marched on.

Photo by Biswarup Ganguly via Wikimedia Commons 

 

In March of this year, I went through a massive crisis of faith; so much so that there were a couple of points where I was seriously considering if I even belonged in Hinduism at all. I was looking at different churches (namely Catholic and Anglican) and synagogues and speaking with religious leaders about the thought of converting. All of this was punctuated by the fact that a former God Brother of mine had already done such a thing. Leaving behind Hinduism and embracing his Christian roots. If he, someone who had been practicing for far longer than I, couldn’t make it, what makes me think I could?

A big thing was that I felt like I couldn’t keep with with what was required of me post-initiation. I’m terrible at doing personal rituals (aside from chanting or reading scriptures), while I’m vegetarian I still indulge in onion and garlic on occasion, and I suck at fasting on Ekadashi. Yet, with that said, the biggest thing that was gnawing at me was that I was beginning to view God much less in a masculine way, and more as the Divine Feminine. From God the Father, to God our Mother essentially. This began a search into Shaktism and it’s practices.

Through the months and months of searching and looking, I eventually made my way back to Vadakalai Sri Vaishnavism, but still see God at Feminine (in this case as Sri Lakshmi). When I started out, the vast majority of my devotion went to Vishnu and His avataras. Yet, deep down, I always felt a pull and adoration towards Devi. Since I was initiated into Vadakalai, this wouldn’t be an issue. Vadakalai Vaishnavas see Lakshmi and Vishnu as being equals; as 2 parts of a singular entity. You can’t have one without the other and you can pray to either for guidance, devotion, and to be granted moksha. This is in contrast with a lot of other Vaishnavas who solely rely on Vishnu or Krishna, with Devi being given a much less significant role. Or even being virtually non-existent

I was assured that me giving primary devotion to Lakshmi wouldn’t put me on the fringes of Sri Vaishnavism and that there were entire scriptures, philosophies, and rituals with Lakshmi and her incarnations being the focus of devotion. While I’m still learning scripture and rituals, I’m now learning them at a much more comfortable pace. Where I don’t feel overwhelmed or as if I am less than adequate at taking up such a big effort. I still need to work on my bhakti and personal sadhana, but that is something that comes with time.

In the course of almost two years, I have gone from trying to force myself into a hardline, orthodox, and purely Vaishnava mindset to feeling far more comfortable with worshiping Lakshmi at my own pace.

I no longer feel massive guilt at not keeping a sattvic (no onion, garlic, or egg) vegetarian diet, but understand how it is needed for spiritual progression.

I no longer feel lesser for not always doing the rituals in which I’ve been prescribed, but know that I must eventually move on with them.

While I will always hold Krishna and Narasimha close to my heart, things are far more natural for me to worship God as female. By Her grace and mercy, I will make it through this lifetime and experience the internal transformation that comes with a spiritually centered life.

 

ॐ श्रीम महालक्ष्मिये नमः

Personal confessions.

Most of the time, I suck at being a Hindu.

That is something that people of various religions don’t want to hear, but I think it’s something that many people can identify or sympathize with. Even though I practice a faith, I’m not particularly good at actually maintaining or keeping up a consistent practice.

I was initiated as a Vaishnava in December 2014. Around March of this year, I began to seriously wonder if I even belonged in Hinduism at all. I was never good at actually doing sadhana (daily prayers and rituals), instead preferring more of a contemplative practice and studying philosophy. I struggled, and still struggle, at doing Sandhyavandanam (a ritual meant to be performed thrice daily) and subsequently feel little to no inclination for doing excessive physical ritual. It just feels too mechanic and I feel no connection to God in doing them. Don’t even get me started on my lack of general Sanskrit skills. The only things I was able to do without any error were become vegetarian and chant some mantras; and even then I still sometimes crave chicken.

On top of all of this, I was seriously looking into other religions. Namely Buddhism, Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Judaism.

So why, dear reader, if all of this is going on, do I still maintain the identity of “Hindu”.

Because I feel as if though that is what I’m supposed to be.

I won’t always be good at keeping up with a consistent practice. I won’t always be the most devotional person. I may forever go through near bi-polar seasons of doubt and look into other religions, but I always make my way back to Sanatana Dharma. Even if I’m not always the most Pious person, I still am a Hindu. Just because I don’t always keep with with my duties, doesn’t mean that I no longer belong in this religion or that I have to exile myself. Hell, just because I can find beauty and inspiration in other religions, doesn’t make me less of a Hindu.

God will always be waiting for me; I just have to catch up.

Besides, if a born Brahmin with the sacred thread can eat meat and never once do any of the required prayers and still be considered a Hindu, then I must be doing alright.

 

 

Photo by Lisa Davis via Wikimedia Commons