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

Reflecting on Samsara

For the past few days, a friend of mine and I visited Brooklyn, New York to visit a friend of his; who is currently living there as an intern. We did the usual touristy types of activities, such as visiting Coney Island and Governor’s island, while also checking out local eateries and the Hare Hare Krishna Temple. This wasn’t our first time visiting the Big Apple, as we visited Manhattan this past March. That time around was a lot more in line with what a tourist would do: time square, visiting the UN, the World Trade Center memorial, shopping at stores which catered to tourists (aka, items sold at much higher prices). Both times were greatly enjoyable and I can’t wait to return to the city and explore another borough.

Yet both times, I was reminded of the Dharmic teaching of samsara.

Essentially, Samsara teaches that life is a cycle of death and rebirth; one of pleasure and pain. Often times experienced at the same time.

It’s interesting the emotions and introspection that comes from seeing it first hand. We always logically know that there is suffering in the world, but it usually remains in the bak of the mind; it’s something that can safely be distanced from. One doesn’t have that luxury when seeing it face to face. 

When visiting the city, this was up close and personal. Admist the bright lights, big crowds, and shopping centers, lies a reality that exists alongside. Seeing anger in the eyes and voices of many in the crowds as they tried to make their way through; many homeless trying to sleep on the sidewalk or asking for change form people who clearly had some to give away (me included); and a general feeling of emptiness when I noticed my own hypocrisy of being able to spend money on something completely material, but not give a couple of dollars to someone on the street. Sure, there are rationalizations which I made, but the feelings were still there.

Is there a way to escape this? Outside of attaining Moksha, not really. No matter where we go, there will be pleasure and pain; often times in the same place or experience. We can (and should) do what we can to help others, but Samsara will always be there. Suffering, joy, love, hatred, and the constant cycle therein will always exist. It’s a natural part of the world and cannot be something that we can avoid. No matter how much we wish to do so.

Of course I don’t wish to come across as nihilistic about the nature of existence (far from it actually), but this is just another part of the souls journey. Better get used to it if one doesn’t want to go insane.

 

w_DLP_5629

Hare Krishna Center in Brooklyn, NYC
Photo by David 

Sometimes, I do miss Christianity.

What I just typed as the title might as well be heresy among post-Christian circles.

When one leaves behind their birth religion (in my case, Christianity) for another faith or for non-faith, there seems to be an underlying vibe that one must never have any nostalgic feelings or fondness of it. There is a reason you left it, right? It was a flawed, evil faith that had no place for you and it has a history of oppression and violence. You’re clearly better off without it.

Just go to any video or writing from someone who left the Christian faith and 8 times out of 10 it’s likely to be remembered as something sad or otherwise extremely negative.

While there are a lot of valid criticisms against Christianity (as there is for all religions), a part of me truly does miss it.

I was raised Southern Baptist, and while I think it is not an overall good institution, there were parts about growing up baptist that I loved. The emphasis on community and the great music. Not to mention amazing food during fellowship.

When I denounced the Christian faith, I foolishly thought that all of Christianity was like my experience growing up, and in the south that’s quite likely. However, once I began to seriously study theology, the fullness and richness of Christianity, especially the liturgical churches, came to my attention. The apostolic history, the communion of Saints, Mary as the Theotokos, the mass (or services similar to it), the nuanced and mature theology beyond the “do it because God said so” that I grew up with. Not to mention the fact that, whether we like it or not, Christianity was one of the many bedrocks of western civilization and philosophy. Furthermore, there is a strand of the faith which is fully dedicated to social justice and helping the poor; something I think Jesus would fully approve of. All of this, plus more, truly is attractive to me, and not long ago I seriously began contemplating returning to my roots.

But I didn’t. Despite all of the good I see in Christianity, I just can’t return to it.

I can’t get over the fact that, as a gay man, while there is a lot of affirmation among some churches, most would see me as a second class citizen at best; an evil sodomite at worst.

I can’t get over the teachings of a permanent hell and the fact that, according to some, good people who just so happened to not believe in God would end up there.

I looked into a kind of post-modern, progressive Christianity, but something big felt like it was missing. Something spiritual and transformative just wasn’t there.

Even as a person of faith, the Problem of Evil is a huge hurdle for me, and perhaps because it’s the dominant faith in my culture, Christianity bears the burden of this.

In the end, I think this is mostly nostalgia playing a role. I can certainly appreciate the kind of mature, complex Christianity found in the ancient churches and early Protestants, but ultimately there just isn’t a place for me. I can look upon it with a kind of fondness, and walk along side my Christian brothers and sisters, but I don’t think there would ever be a full acceptance of me.

Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing when one thinks about it.

Church

 

Photo by Père Igor via Wikimedia Commons 

 

Remembering Orlando

3 days ago, on the 12th of June, a man named Omar Mateen went into Pulse, a popular LGBT club in Orlando, and opened fire.

49 people, the majority of them Latino and Latina, lost their lives. 53 were injured.

As a gay man, this story hits close to home, and in multiple ways. For one, that such violence against LGBT still exists, or that many people still refuse to acknowledge that anti-LGBT sentiment was a major factor in why the shooter did what he did. I suppose it was wishful thinking, but a part of me always hoped that, while hatred and bigotry still existed, that it had been reduced to slurs and feelings, and not violent action. I truly hoped that the US had moved beyond that. While there was still general hatred, that the days of the Matthew Shepards, Gwen Araujos, or Brandon Teenas had passed. That the United States has moved beyond such a hateful mentality outside of a few isolated incidents and individuals.

Apparently that doesn’t seem to be the case. A rather sobering reminder.

Furthermore, while I have no major personal connections to Orlando, I have a friend who lives near there. He was actually supposed to go to the cub that night, but didn’t. It’s scary to think that he was just one decision away from being caught up in it. Not only that, he knew people who were in Pulse; those who died and who were injured. I wish I could help him more than I currently can, but right now that’s not possible.

Finally, there is how the situation is being handled by the media, politicians, and social media, and this is the part that pisses me off the most. 49 people lost their lives, and while there are major social and political implications with that happened, it didn’t stop the vultures from both political sides using this tragedy as a means of pushing a political agenda.

“Ban guns, now!”

“But my second amendment!”

“He acted on his religion, this is Islam’s fault!”

“That racist and bigoted, Islam had nothing to do with this!”

“We need to know the shooters side of the story!”

“No we don’t! He doesn’t deserve any more recognition!”

As aforementioned, there are major social and political implications involved with what happened, and such things need to be addressed and expounded upon, but don’t use the lives of these 49 people as a means of pointing your finger at the other side and say “This is why you’re wrong. Look what your side has caused.” They are not mere statistical pawns or political ploys.

They were mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, cousins, friends, and lovers. They were humans with full lives who were brought to an unnecessary and tragic end. Not a means to push an agenda and play the political blame game. Let their souls rest before you swipe down and claim their lives for your own “superior” theories of how things should be handled. This is not a time to tear each other apart, but to come together.

By the off chance that anyone from Orlando, or any one who is LGBT, might be reading this, remember:

You are powerful. Do not let hate, bigotry, or violence make you forget that. You do not deserve a life of fear, but one of affirmation and love.

As for those who have passed, may MahaLakshmi bring them into Her loving embrace, liberated from the cycle of death and rebirth.

 

images

 

 

Lessons in love from the Greeks (and C.S. Lewis)

Call me a bit idealistic in terms of romance, but I truly can’t wait until I find the man who I will spend my life with. Someone who I will come home to and experience both the pain and joys of life. Someone who will always be there for me, even when I’m at my worst. Someone whom, everyday when I wake up, I can look at and safely say how lucky I am to have someone in my life.

(Apparently I’m stuck in the 1950s in this regard)

Like I said, perhaps this is a very idealistic view of love that I hope to one day experience. About half of all marriages end in divorce, and God knows how many unmarried relationships end. More and more people are opting to cohabitate rather than marry, and non-monogamous forms of love and marriage are coming more into the public eye. Even then, regardless of how one experiences love, everything won’t always be sunshine and rainbows; as arguments and fights are bound to happen. As times goes on, the idea of romance or lifelong commitment, while certainly still relevant for many people (including myself), is met with a kind of jaded cynicism or accusation of nativity.

More so, maybe because I’m gay, religious, and strictly monogamous, I’ve personally gotten my fair share of sneers and gaffles at how I see romantic love.

 

“Monogamy doesn’t work”

“The only reason you want to marry is because you are conforming to heteronormativity”

“Polyamory is the most natural way of expressing love”

 

There seems to be this misconception that because I (and others like me) only want to romantically commit myself to one other person, that I somehow am missing out on loving others.

Obviously, I don’t agree with this. You know who else doesn’t? The Greeks…and CS Lewis.

The idea that love as being only romantic in nature is a very recent phenomenon. In western ancient times (and arguably until the 19th-ish century) romantic love was not only but one expression of love, but it was often seen as lesser; coming in second to love between friends or a deep sacrificial bond. According to which sources you read, the Greeks had about 6 or 7 words for love, and usually 4 of them are universally recognized: Eros, Philia, Agape, and Storge.

Eros is romantic love, usually one of a sexual nature.

Philia is love between friends, brothers, family, community or equals.

Agape is a deep, compassionate love with many varying contexts. Often described as the love God has for humanity, or otherwise as a strong affectionate love (like how a parent loves a child or how one loves a spouse). The difference between Eros and the latter for Agape could be that Eros is the first year of marriage, while Agape is what comes after 20 years together.

Storge is a love that develops naturally. Such as a child for a parent, or for a spouse, to use the previous 20+ year marriage example.

It goes without saying that what I described is very much simplified, but also notice that very few actually stand on their own. Sure, one could experience any of the four on their own, but none of them exist in a vacuum. Eros can become Agape or from develop Storge; what starts off as Philia can become more than that or can be intertwined with another. Furthermore, as someone who is strictly monogamous with Eros, it shows that someone like me is perfectly capable of loving others with no issue. There are many friends whom I love like brothers and sisters (Philia), many of whom have developed over the years (Storge), and I await the day where I feel such a deep connection with someone that anything ceases to matter (Agape).

So yes, I may not be “sexually liberated” enough to be active with more than one other person, but I still am capable of loving many people in the purest essence of the word. I’m not missing out on anything, but rather experience love differently. Regardless though, opening ones heart to love (regardless of the kind) is something so terrifying yet exhilarating at the same time.

 

In the words of C.S. Lewis:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

The Four Loves

Is love a material thing?

Last year my two friends, John and Chalapathy, got engaged to one another after partaking in a 5 day religious ritual called Brahmotsavam (a celebration of a temple’s founding). Earlier this year, John flew out to Australia and Chala’s family threw both of them a traditional South Indian engagement ceremony. This past week, their story spread across the internet like wildfire. Starting in a small site called Gaylaxy, but eventually making it’s way to Buzzfeed, the Times of India, the Huffington Post, and multiple shares on Facebook.

What’s one of the golden rules of the internet? Don’t read the comments.

What did I do? Just that.

Certainly, most comments were either supportive or neutral, but there were the ones which were negative through and through. However, there was one that caught me off guard.

Essentially,  the comment creator didn’t understand the need for two men to get married, or anyone to get married for that matter, as love is just an attachment to illusion. To be attached to a jiva (soul) is lesser than to be attached to God (in this individual’s’ case, Lord Krishna). This caused a mixed reaction, as some disagreed with the commenter, and others agreeing. One person went as far as to call the only purpose of marriage as a means to “formally enjoy sex”.

As a gay man who one day hopes to fall in love and marry, who also just so happens who follow Hinduism, is there any truth to this? Is my desire to love and be loved (and yes, enjoy sex) strictly a material thing?

On one level, yes, it is kind of material. Technically speaking, anything that isn’t inherently devotional or directed at God is considered material. However, I think the better question is “is wanting love, a material thing, inherently bad?”

 

My answer would be no.

 

The general goal of Hinduism, regardless of the sect or school, is to attain moksha (liberation) from samsara (the cycle of death and rebirth). This comes in many forms and styles; usually by meditation, loving devotion, and adherence to rites and rituals. Traditionally (and I say this in a very broad sense) while everyone had certain duties to perform during their life, the hardcore working towards moksha didn’t occur until the final years of one’s life. There are 4 stages of life in traditional Hinduism: Brahmacharya (celibate student), Grihastha (married/householder), Vanaprastha (retired), and Sannyasa (renounced).

During the householder stage, it was expected that one would enjoy the material world. That meant having a job, friends, get married and, yes, partaking in sex. It was considered an appropriate time in one’s life to enjoy those things. One still had religious and societal duties, but one was actively engaged in the material world from their 20s to (usually) their 50s/60s. After their householder life is when one slowly detached from the world and, in their 80s and beyond, would focus entirely on liberation and spirituality.

Of course, not everyone did this in the past and certainly only a few even follow it now, but the point I’m trying to make is that enjoying material pleasures isn’t inherently bad. In fact, it’s often expected.

One thing I noticed while reading that comment was that the individual (and a fair number of other commenters) was from ISKCON; a branch of Gaudiya Vaishnavism . I can’t speak for Gaudiya as a whole, but ISKCON is very heavy on detachment from the world in nearly it’s entirety. So much so that people who should be householders live practically like monastics. For those who are married, their love for each other is generally considered an attachment and lesser than their love for God. The goal of life is to love God and spread the ideas necessary for all sentient beings to attain liberation; everything else is secondary. This was especially true in its heyday in the 1960s and 70s.

It goes without saying that not everyone in ISKCON would necessarily be as strict with the official interpretation of marriage and love, but those ideals are still prevalent. If it’s not obvious, I disagree with said ideals, but I wouldn’t want to take away anyone’s right to believe it if that’s what they thought were true.

Personally, while I love Sri Devi and hope sooner than later to escape from this never ending cycle, I’m still going to enjoy the life that I do have. I’m still going to partake in the things that the world has to offer, material or otherwise. It doesn’t mean I’m spiritually lesser (although I’m nowhere close to being wise), it just means that I’m still on my journey. That I still have quite some time before I can completely detach my mind from the material and focus on the spiritual. That while I love God, I’m not ready to renounce everything quite yet.

And that’s perfectly okay.