A Hindu attraction to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

“For behold, from henceforth : all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath magnified me : and holy is his Name. And his mercy is on them that fear him : throughout all generations. He hath shewed strength with his arm : he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.”
– The Magnificat of Mary, Book of Common prayer

I was raised Southern Baptist. A denomination so iconoclastic that even evangelicals would tell them to clam down. Growing up, I was told that anything even remotely resembling Catholicism was perverting the truth of Christs gospel. Never mind Catholics themselves, who were pretty much the epitome of evil. I had no idea of the Saints, Sacraments, the mass, the many devotionals, the rosary, mortal or venial sin, or the varying religious orders. All I knew was that they were all a bunch of “Mary Worshippers.” Now that I’m Hindu, I have no attraction towards Jesus, the church, or the Bible (not anymore, at least).

Yet, try as I might, I cannot shake my strong, almost obsessive, attraction to the Blessed Virgin Mary. More specifically to Our Lady of Seven Sorrows.

our-lady-of-sorrows

How can something so morbid be so spiritually beautiful? 

Like I said, I have absolutely no attraction to Jesus or to many other parts of Christianity. Yet, I cannot deny that I feel a burning love for his mother. So much so, that I find myself going to Catholic churches on her feast days or just to light a candle on one of her altars. I have a couple of rosaries and am even considering purchasing a small statue of her. However, make no mistake, this isn’t me syncretizing Christianity with Hinduism. I do not hold the Bible as authoritative or believe Jesus to be God. If this is the case, then why do I have such a deep love for Mary?

I honestly do not know. I was not raised Catholic, so I don’t have a nostalgic fondness for her. I don’t believe her to be an incarnation of Devi, but have no problem having her alongside Durga, Lakshmi, or Kali. When I look into her eyes, I see a love for her son and for the world that is as intense as those from Hinduism. The love of a mother, who grieves for the suffering of the world. Who prays for us and wants us to turn to her for comfort. In my times of sorrow, I turn to the Divine Mother (in her many forms) and know that I am not alone. Mary is just another one of those mothers.

I know very well that this isn’t a part of traditional Hinduism. Those who are more orthodox will see this kind of devotion as outside of what is normative or even “watering down” Hinduism. Yet at the same time, this isn’t as uncommon as one might think. Regardless of this, Hinduism has a history of existing alongside other religions and in many cases mixed and intermingled with other practices. How else do you think Hinduism moved from a Vedic to a predominately more Puranic/Bhakti practice? Mary is not going to be considered a goddess in our religion any time soon. And rest assured, she is not going to take over or replace the many other goddesses. Our religion isn’t going to be destroyed if some people venerate a figure outside of its traditions. 

Hail Mary, full of grace. Pray for us, now and at the hour of our death.

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.