Paramahansa Yogananda’s Excellent Adventure

When I related my daughter’s Koran shopping episode I noted that Barnes and Noble carries exactly zero books about Hinduism in its religion section. Being married to my husband, I know that not a single book at B&N is accidentally placed: exhaustive research is executed on buying habits of customers, and the potential profitability of each and every book. In fact, even how the books are laid out is thoroughly researched and deliberate. You know those tables scattered throughout the store? Publishers pay a premium to have their volumes displayed on them, as opposed to the shelves.

There are tons of new age, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist books– but nary a volume on Hinduism. Which is strange, because immigrant Hindus in the U.S. tend to be well educated and of the book buying capacity.

However, I do occasionally see one or two volumes published by the Self Realization Fellowship, which as far as I can tell is a quasi-Hindu organization devoted to bringing the “spirit” of Hinduism to a western audience. So it’s not exactly Hindu per se, but probably the closest you’re going to find at B&N.

One day earlier this year I bought one of those volumes: Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda, pictured below:

paramahansa-yogananda
ommmm…

I got the book home and my husband immediately asked: why did I bring Steve Job’s book home?

Huh? I had no clue what he was talking about.

As it turns out Autobiography of a Yogi was handed out at Mr. Job’s funeral per his request. The Self Realization Fellowship had to scramble to supply oodles of copies, and those who watched the scion interred walked away with a parting gift. Which I now happened to own as well.

The book is not what you think– or at least it wasn’t what I anticipated. I imagined a few hundred pages of Hindu apologetics, and while the volume does include that betimes, Mr. Yogananda’s chirpy, almost silly voice delivers a spellbinding tale that, like most truth, is stranger than fiction.

Way back in the 1930s Mr. Yogananda received a call from God to preach Hinduism, or quasi-Hinduism to the west. So he peregrinates to the States and not only was he well received here, but eventually, with a couple western disciples, embarked (in a model T Ford!) on an around-the-world journey to interview a variety of saints and gurus, including Mahatma Gandhi and stigmatic Therese Neumann.

While in audience of Ms. Neumann Mr. Yogananda uses his vulcan mind-meld powers (yes, he can read minds, but typically only does so with permission) to see if she’s a fake: she isn’t, and by entering her mind Mr. Yogananda witnessed the passion of Jesus Christ in excruciating detail, just as Ms. Neumann did during her stigmatic episodes. He concludes that Ms. Neumann was granted the gift of the stigmata so that Christians could have the veracity and suffering of Jesus Christ validated. (Even if you don’t feel like reading the whole book, reading that chapter alone is worth the effort and $12.50… not to mention the volume is available free online in pdf form.)

The book is not entirely autobiographical and does delve into Mr. Yogananda’s theological “unifying theories–” namely that there are no vital differences between Hinduism and Christianity. Of course, this will make your average believing Christian’s head explode, but he does offer salient points, or at the very least food for fodder. For instance there is evidence that early Christians held a tenet of reincarnation- as does mystical Judaism, from whence Christianity arose.  When Jesus heals the man born blind, he asks: did this man sin, or did his parents sin? Well a baby cannot sin, so where did this sin originate? Plausibly this is a reference to a previous incarnation, hearkening to the concept of karma. Furthermore the gospels imply that John the Baptist is the “recycled” (to use the hebrew term, gilgul) version of Elijah. In Matthew 11 Jesus says of John the Baptist, And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

Mr. Yogananda’s theories on Christian-Hindu unity are complex and I can’t pretend to understand them fully. However, one his stranger postulations is that the Hindu concept of maya– illusion- is synonymous with the Christian notion of Satan. This will be a foreign concept to believing Christians, who view Satan as a personified fallen angel who tempts mankind toward evil deeds.

The book is an easy read and would be of interest to anyone with a yen for religion or history, as the era in which Mr. Yoganada travels prefaces World War II. Heck, it would be an interesting read even for people with an interest in Steve Jobs! So if you are looking for a book to page through by the pool, this one comes highly recommended.

Catholic School

Some views from the caverns of Catholic school. When I walk into my younger children’s school I feel I’ve been transported back in time. Case in point:

phonebooth
Neo?

Despite growing up in a Christian environment I still find it bizarre to see Christian iconography in a school.

stjoseph
supernatural hallway monitor

infantjesus
infant jesus of prague, backup for checking hallway passes

cagethe cage where they lock up naughty children. JUST KIDDING! this blocks access to the roof.

lastsupperthe last supper in the auditorium

francisPope Francis looking humble and communist.

nrdame
the virgin at my older daughter’s school.

The Hippie Preacher

I recently came across a fascinating documentary about Lonnie Frisbee, a pentecostal preacher who is, arguably, single-handedly responsible for the inception of the Vineyard movement that grew into a huge “franchise” of churches worldwide. There are more than a few twists to this story: for one, Frisbee started out as a barely literate, drug-addled hippie whose first encounters with Jesus transpired courtesy of LSD. For second, he was openly gay until renouncing homosexuality once born-again. However he had difficulty giving up his sexual inklings and to some degree- how much isn’t known- he slipped back into gay relationships and gay sex during his ministry, “partying on Saturday night and preaching Sunday morning.” Once his predilections became known to the higher ups in the community he was summarily fired and written out of the history of the Jesus Movement despite being one of its most pivotal figures.

To be fair, Frisbee himself believed homosexuality to be a sin according to his own interpretation of scriptures. Despite his deep religiosity and “anointed” abilities to heal and proselytize, he continued to struggle with sexuality even at the height of his career. One can view this two ways, I suppose. Either he was a deliberate fraud, or he was a well-meaning- but tormented- man of deep faith. The documentary gives the impression of the latter, and I can only imagine how fierce Frisbee’s inner demons must have been while living a double life.

By all accounts, Frisbee was an extraordinarily charismatic individual who could bring droves to Jesus. He also believed that the miracles described in the New Testament should still be extant today, and the documentary relates two incidents of miraculous healings he performed, as well as moments where he converted vast crowds to Christ in one fell swoop. I sometimes wonder if these pentecostal preachers have some kind of hypnotic ability over their audience. Secularly speaking, how do they get people to fall to the ground, speak in tongues, to have life-altering encounters with Jesus/ God/ the holy spirit? I’ve been to evangelical churches, and while I enjoyed the music, I never felt anything close to dropping to the ground and praising Jesus. I guess Satan has a force field around me.

I once read the theory that sexual and religious passion are similar to one another, despite residing on polar sides of the morality spectrum. The Jewish reasoning for this is that the passages of the Sotah (adulteress) and Nazirite “touch” each other in the Torah (Numbers 5-6). It would seem that in certain individuals, like Frisbee, the wires of sexual and religious fervor get crossed. Maybe this is true for other men of the cloth; I had a friend married to a sex addict and once she finally made her way to a support group for spouses of sex addicts, she was surprised to find most of the women were married to preachers.

The documentary is well done and balanced, remaining respectful of Frisbee’s beliefs while not hammering the gay rights issue too hard. It was not executed by a Christian production company, but a secular one. It also offers a spellbinding peek into the early Jesus Movement within the 1960s counter-cultural era. Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher is available in full on youtube.

How to Die in Oregon

How to Die in Oregon is a documentary about Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act, which allows physicians to prescribe a lethal dose of barbiturates to the terminally ill. The docu paints a rosy portrait of the process, showing the procurement of the drugs (“hey, I didn’t know my insurance would cover it!”), the mixing of the drugs into water by volunteers, and joking, singing family members handing their loved ones off to the afterlife.

While I can see the use and good of this law in the hands of the educated, affluent, thoughtful circles shown in the film, I couldn’t help but consider how horrific this kind of national habit would be in the hands of the government, or even worse, insurance companies (the two will be the same thing eventually), or what might happen in a more hostile family situation where a sick person could be directly or indirectly coerced to end their life for convenience. Indeed, one of the few opposing views in the film came from a man terminally ill with prostate cancer. He shared the denial letter from his insurance company refusing to pay for chemotherapy– but it did offer to cover his suicide cocktail if he elected to die with dignity.

Having watched a beloved family member die slowly and horribly from multiple myeloma, I know she would have happily chugged down the barbiturate cocktail rather than endure an artificially extended life of agony. Under pressure from her children, though, she continued treatment while her “life” was dragged out months on end. I put “life” in quotes because she knew nothing but pain and despair over that period, and she made it clear to me she was ready, willing, and unafraid to die. But her children and the medical establishment won out: everything conceivable was administered and performed to eek out a few more moments of existence. But at what human cost?

This is the thing I don’t understand about Christians who insist on extending life as long as possible with every last medical measure at humanity’s disposal. Where in the Bible does it say you just keep doing stuff to sick people until their bodies simply won’t take it anymore? I’d estimate that my relative lived about eight months beyond what she naturally should have, already having received a heavy amount of treatment, but those eighth months were a second by second torture to her. Where does the Bible require that?

So I can see both sides of the equation, and while I appreciate the desire of the act’s advocates to provide people with a comfortable death within their control, I feel they’re a bit naive as to where this road might lead. Not everyone lives the comfortable lives of those featured in this film, with devoted, brainy relatives, excellent insurance coverage, and access to outstanding and caring doctors. Given that the act currently operates at a grassroots level via a network of volunteers, they probably don’t realize how toxic this could become in the hands of those with power.

In terms of documentary quality, the film was good but not great. It probably should have simply focused on people electing to end their lives via the act, but instead comes across as a propaganda piece, which is annoying no matter which side of the matter your opinion resides.

Boondock Saints and Angels of Death

Over the years I’d had The Boondock Saints recommended to me, but since vigilante movies aren’t my cup of tea, I avoided it. Yet last night, wanting to kill some time, I decided to watch it because none other than Norman Reedus– who later would be anointed with Walking Dead fame as the much-loved Daryl Dixon– stars in it as vigilante Murphy McManus.

It didn’t take long before I realized Boondock Saints is much more than a vigilante film. It’s an “angel film” in the vein of The Bishop’s Wife or Wings of Desire. The dead giveaway is that– despite being uneducated and working in a meat packing plant– they are fluent in any language they hear. When wanting to converse in secret, they speak in Gaelic which is probably a subtle reference to the “angel language” mentioned in the Bible. The movie drops many other hints that the brothers are in fact otherworldly beings, but if you haven’t seen the film I’ll leave it up to you to pick them out.

The Bible, or Torah, actually describes “avenging angels, “destroying angels,” or “angels of death” in several passages, including the famous “destroyer” who kills the Egyptian firstborn on Passover night.

boondock

Of course, Boondock is a heavily Christian film, with the brothers depicted as strangely devout and single minded about good vs. evil, but the notion of “destroying angels” has been carried over into Christian tradition.

I typically enjoy Willem Defoe as an actor but his performance in Boondocks is horrible and nearly ruins the film. He looks absolutely ridiculous waltzing around crime scenes with eyes closed, and his over-the-top rendition of a gay, morally conflicted FBI agent was embarrassing to watch. I don’t know if he was directed to perform this way, or if, as the biggest star in the cast, he decided to be egregiously flamboyant.

The film raised a lot of questions for me: if the brothers are angels, what was the role of Rocco? Were the angels sent to protect him? Was Il Duce meant to be representative of Satan– who was a “fallen angel–” given how he is released from prison (as is described in Revelations)? Since we eventually end up with three vigilantes, are they meant to represent the trinity, or the three primary monotheistic religions? I’m sure the writer had some of these ideas in mind, but how precise they were meant to be, or exactly what type of film he wished to create (religious vs. action, etc.) is open for debate.

Holy Hell

My copy of Holy Hell arrived this week. It’s not often I come across a book that I desperately want to read, but this was one of them. It’s not because I ever was, or considered being, an Amma devotee, but I’ve known people who were, and of course I took great interest in the documentary Darshan: The Embrace which I reviewed here on this blog. Darshan is an excellent documentary and I’ve watched it several times over the years. So it was fascinating indeed to read about the nascent days of the ashram from a member of Amma’s inner circle.

I’ve long held an armchair interest in Hinduism and India, moreover I’ve often wondered what exactly goes through the minds of westerners who abandon Judeo-Christian roots in favor of eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism. Is it the exotic appeal of something “foreign?” Is the doom and gloom of Christianity distasteful to their intellectual palate? Is it a yearning for deeper spirituality, and if so, do those westerners realize Judaism and Christianity have rich spiritual heritages? Do they recognize that Judeo-Christian and eastern religions all share common threads of self-discipline, abstention, and penance?

Thanks to Gail Tredwell, we are allowed a luminous view of this west-east journey. While visiting India as a young tourist she grows increasingly involved in spiritual pursuits, eventually taking a vow of chastity and living near an ashram in Tiruvannamalai. From there, a chance meeting brings her to Amma– then living with her parents in a village lacking electricity or running water. Before long Ms. Tredwell is appointed her personal attendant, a position she would hold for the next 20 years during which she grows fluent in Malayalam and adept at Indian cooking.

gail
Ms. Tredwell with Amma.

The book was much sadder than I expected. It’s clear Ms. Tredwell is still emotionally bound up and traumatized by her experience at the ashram, where she was relentlessly worked, beaten, and repeatedly sexually assaulted. However, given that this went on for 20 years, you have to ask yourself why she never sought help or even considered leaving. I don’t doubt her narrative– she certainly has nothing to gain by making scandalous claims against a religious juggernaut far more powerful than she will ever be. I suppose it is simply a sad testament to the power of suggestibility and the sacrifices even rational people will make to obtain a sense of belonging.

It is puzzling that, while countries where Buddhism and Hinduism are practiced tend to be very traditional and conservative, it is progressives and liberals from the west who are drawn to these cultures. It’s almost as though they can tolerate distinct gender roles and conservatism in foreign cultures but never their own. Indeed, Ms. Tredwell encounters a far more aggressive and pervasive misogyny in India than she ever would have experienced in her native Australia. In a particularly painful passage, an Indian doctor misdiagnoses a massive ovarian cyst as a prolapsed uterus from “too much sex–” even though she’d been celibate for six years.

It goes without saying that Holy Hell is a controversial book, given her disturbing allegations against the Hindu equivalent of Mother Theresa. However Ms. Tredwell’s love and respect for India– especially Indian women– shines through the prose resolutely. On a tangential note I hope Ms. Tredwell writes a cookbook as she was in the unique position to learn Indian cuisine from actual Indian housewives, and not chefs. If she ever comes across this blog, hint hint!

Illuminati and the Super Bowl

Conspiracy blogs and websites are abuzz with anticipation of the impending Super Bowl halftime show. In Super Bowls past, we have, according to these sources, been treated to a smorgasbord of Illuminati symbols and messages via the talents of performers like Madonna and Beyonce.

satanicmadonna
Ishtar lives!

While I don’t deny there’s some weird iconography not just in these shows, but in the entertainment industry at large, here’s my problem with this line of thinking: if I were a member of an all-powerful secret world government, the last people I’d involve in my world domination efforts would be a bunch of stupid rappers and pop singers.

Yet the rumors abound and persist. To be sure, some stars seem to go out of their way to promote spooky Illuminati symbols, like Rhianna scrolling the phrase “Illuminati Princess” behind her in a recent music video. Does she even know what the Illuminati is? Or for that matter, do the conspiracy theorists know? Because I’ve heard it defined as anything from a Rubicon-style shadow government, to an occult force straight from the fires of hell, to aliens taking over our brains from the fifth dimension, or any combination of the three.

In my view there are numerous possibilities when it comes to Illuminati symbolism:

1) There is indeed some kind of conspiracy afoot, and for whatever reason the “agency without agents” leaves so-called easter eggs in media and popular culture regarding their world-sovereignty shenanigans.

2) These symbols and alleged clues are random occurrences (in particular number sequences often pointed out in TV and movies) but are perceived as having pattern and meaning by our human minds, which are hard-wired to perceive patterns.

3) The entertainment industry intentionally inserts Illuminati and occult symbolism into its various labors because they look cool and edgy.

4) The entertainment industry intentionally inserts Illuminati and occult symbolism into its various labors to create buzz and publicity for itself.

5) Bored and disgruntled production designers insert these symbols into entertainment fodder to cause trouble for their employers.

6) Our collective consciousness can predict grand scale world events (explaining the many images of, and references to, a destroyed World Trade Center previous to the event) and social trends. Before you laugh, recall the Princeton experiment described in Wake Upthe documentary about cinematographer Jonas Elrod who abruptly finds himself able to see the spirit world. In the experiment random 1/0 generators were found to behave differently prior to certain catastrophic events, like 9/11 and the 2004 tsunami. The conclusion is that humanity emits a “collective resonance” that detects colossal events prior to their occurrence and somehow impacts the devices. Likewise, is it possible that we emit a collective iconography concerning the human psyche, and since we are all rapidly descending to hell in a hand basket, our collective iconography reflects the darker side of the netherworld.

Regardless, no matter which supposition might hold weight, Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers will dazzle us with a gaudy and subversive production Sunday night.

Believers Behaving Badly

My earliest memories of religion are the Anglican church my mother hauled us to, and later the elementary school attached to it. Every so often an uninspiring priest would visit us students with a rousing… or not… lecture. I remember once, he instructed us to reach our arms into the air (a strange thing for stodgy Anglicans to do, I’m sure you all know the joke about the Anglicans in hell for using the wrong fork). “Everything around you is God,” said the priest, and he encouraged us to wave our arms, reaching for God.

Well, all I felt was air. No God. What was this dork talking about? So at the age of six I was a resolute atheist. This didn’t change even in high school, when I enraged a muslim guy by informing him his mosque wasn’t a house of God– it was a house of air. He got a look in his eyes like he could kill me on the spot. Good grief, what was all this God fuss about?

The parade of religious people I encountered over my life did little to soften my heart. The Anglican priest at the church we attended after our move to New England was discovered to be stealing funds from the coffers. His replacement, a charming, extremely tall man from the faraway and seemingly mythical land of Manhattan, eventually confessed before the Sunday crowd that he was a raging alcoholic in need of help. In middle school I befriended a girl whose father was a pastor of an evangelical church. She expressed great concern for my unsaved soul (but I was technically a Christian, wasn’t I?). Meanwhile she was having sex with every male on her block under the age of 25… all at the tender age of 14.

In college I encountered a guy who identified himself as a born again christian. He always made a big to-do about holding the door open for women, or insisting they enter the elevator first. He didn’t do this out of chivalry: it was a trap. Because god forbid a woman declined his gesture with a “No thanks,” or, “That’s not necessary.” In which case he would unleash a tirade against women and feminism the likes of which would make Rush Limbaugh blush.

Also in college I encountered a few guys who expressed amorous interest in me, only to discover they didn’t actually want a relationship, because they could only be in a relationship with someone of the right religion (then why express interest in the first place? Ugh!). One was Jewish, one was Mennonite (I didn’t realize, at the time, how remarkable it was that he was in college at all), and the other Mormon. The Mormon guy was eventually commanded by his “elder” to leave me alone.

I am no longer an atheist, but I’m still rankled by reports of religious people– particularly those in positions of authority– behaving badly. Ted Haggard, all those Catholic priests and the church-wide cover up of their actions, baby-snatching nuns, the occasional molesting rabbi. These stories all dishearten me. In the video I recently posted of Fr. Lazarus, he describes how, as a child, he could not reconcile people’s bad behavior with their avowed religious beliefs. Quite frankly I’d rather people come out and say they worship the devil, instead of pretending to worship good while practicing evil.

I’m being thoroughly hypocritical here, because I’m also annoyed when atheists denigrate religion based on the unsavory behavior of believers. I once read a scathing online comment in a local news publication against Catholicism. This guy’s ex-wife– a Catholic– had cheated on him twice and had an abortion. This, in his view, delegitimized the entire institution of Catholicism. Ok, I get it. The hypocrisy outraged him not unlike it bewilders me. Yet I also understand that human beings are thoroughly imperfect and that religious belief is not always straightforward, is deeply personal, and quite possibly means something different to each individual adherent. And without knowing the private lives of every religious person on earth, the extent of religious hypocrisy will have to remain untabulated in our mortal view.

Fr. Lazarus El Anthony

I stumbled across this outstanding footage of modern-day hermit Fr. Lazarus El Anthony, a coptic monk living in a cave in the Egyptian desert. I call it “footage” rather than a documentary because this appears to be a serialized interview filmed for coptic religious classes. However, there is a documentary about this monk, The Last Anchorite, but it’s not available on netflix.

This lengthy interview is worth watching regardless of your religious persuasion or lack thereof. Fr. Lazarus spins a fascinating tale of going from marxist, atheist academic to desert dwelling coptic monk. After the devastating death of his mother he reads Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain and decides that if monastery life brought Merton peace, it might bring him peace. So he phones the local Catholic monastery, is asked if he’s Catholic (no) or if he was recommended by a priest (no). The monastery hangs up on him. Then he calls a local orthodox monastery, but I will leave the remainder of the story for you to watch.

This is a playlist of 12 videos; it has an annoying insignia superimposed over it, but since the film is simply Fr. Lazarus talking, you could minimize it and just listen to audio. His relaxed, friendly demeanor and vast intellect are engaging; I felt I was listening to a close friend rather than a desert recluse worlds apart. Despite being Australian, he speaks with an odd sounding Egyptian accent. I noticed the same phenomena in Hippie Masala, where the European gurus spoke English with a Hindi accent. I guess if you live in an area long enough you eventually start speaking like those around you.

The Coptic Christians Fr. Lazarus joins are the same minority group being persecuted in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. I was left wondering, while watching him speak, what has become of the ascetic, as I know more than one monastery and countless churches were destroyed by muslims. The fifth century Berber siege of Scetis (Skete, or Wadi El Natrun), where the original desert fathers dwelt, comes to mind as a haunting historical forerunner to the events of today.