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.

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The Jewel in the Crown

The Jewel in the Crown is a PBS aired miniseries from 1984 depicting the transitional years of India shifting from British to self-rule. This, of course, would include the partition of India and Pakistan. I actually watched this series when I was a kid and I realize now it was my first introduction to India and Hinduism, topics that would remain lifelong interests. I’m surprised my mother let me watch it, as it’s rife with risque scenes and taboo material, though watching it now as an adult I realize most of it went right over my head at the time. For instance there is the ongoing theme of repressed homosexuality- to the extent that it begins to feel contrived and gratuitous, but I didn’t really “get it” as an 11 year old. There are also very disturbing themes of suicide, despair, and war-induced PTSD (though it’s not called that in the series) all set to the background of World War II and a threatened Japanese invasion of the country.

The series does not lend itself to binge watching; it took me two weeks to plow through it (my husband kept saying, “You’re still watching this?”). There are fourteen ponderous episodes, all of them about an hour long; the first episode is 1 hr 45 minutes. At times the script feels more like a stage play, with lots of introspective and philosophical dialogue, though the slow pacing is punctuated with high and tragic action- particularly in the first and last episodes.

The acting is by and large outstanding. Tom Piggot-Smith is especially good as the icy Ronald Merrick, the one character who appears in most of the episodes. The scene where, clad in a tuxedo, he robotically asks Daphne for her hand in marriage is painful to watch. Likewise Charles Dance (who would later appear in Game of Thrones) is excellent as historian-turned-spy Guy Perron.

It is fascinating to watch the depiction of an affluent, secular Muslim elite. I suppose this still holds today as the majority of secular muslims are highly educated and come from privileged backgrounds (though not all privileged muslims end up secular).  It was also fascinating how seemingly laissez-faire muslim rulership was to foreign interlopers, though of course this could be artifice constructed  by Paul Scott (author of The Raj Quartet) but it makes for a compelling narrative nonetheless.

If you have about 15 hours to spare then The Jewel in the Crown is well worth watching. A few scenes are boring, but that’s what the fast forward button is for.

Better to Raise Geese

It’s a Girl is another incredibly depressing documentary that, like Black Fish, took me by surprise. While I didn’t expect a cheerful 60 minutes, the film opens with an Indian woman casually describing how she killed eight of her newborn girls and buried them in a shallow grave decorated with weedy flowers. The documentary only goes downhill from there.

It’s a Girl is about female infantcide and feticide in India and China. Many millions of girls– some experts put the total at 200 million– have been aborted or killed at birth in both countries by families under heavy pressure to produce a boy. Worse yet, in India, mothers who aren’t producing boys are killed by husbands impatient for a son. These crimes are rarely if ever prosecuted by cultures tolerant of the lust for boys. As one Chinese proverb puts it: It is better to raise geese than to raise girls. The brutality touches all social strata; beauty queen Pooja Chopra was nearly killed at birth, and her family was educated and middle class. Indeed, It’s a Girl features an Indian doctor who was starved, poisoned, and assaulted by her husband and mother-in-law in an effort to coerce her into aborting twin girls. As she puts it, if this can happen to an educated woman like her, what is going on in the villages?

The segment on China was even more horrifying. At least in India the practice of forced abortion isn’t a national pasttime, complete with paid snitches and a police force to enforce the effort. The docu shows some of the most devastating photographs I’ve ever seen– weeping, heavily pregnant chinese women herded together in cramped quarters awaiting forced abortions, because they had exceeded the one to two child limit.

An ironically placed 1995 clip of Hillary Clinton decrying the practice of forced abortion brought the elephant in the living room to the fore: where is the western feminist outcry against the feticide and infanticide of millions of girls? If this is not a feminist cause, what is? But somehow the campus feminists aren’t particularly energized to address the brutal practices that not only snuff out young female lives, but terrorize and even kill mothers coerced and forced into abortions and infanticide. Maybe western feminists don’t care what happens to third world women. Maybe they’ve been so conditioned to view abortion as a good thing, that the disconnect is too much for them. Or maybe they’re environmentalists who see it as a boon to get rid of those pesky babies before they can pollute the earth. Not even Michelle Obama– a mother of two daughters– would address the issue of forced abortion on a recent trip to China.

Sadly these countries will probably get what they have coming to them soon enough. There is already a massive gender imbalance amongst sexually mature adults, with 40,000,000 “extra” Chinese males who will probably remain unmarriageable because there simply aren’t enough women to go around. Unmarried young men are, statistically, the greatest instigators of crime and social unrest, and this is already being witnessed in China with a rise in sex crimes and female trafficking. Ironically enough, families are kidnapping young girls, not to have a daughter but to ensure a daughter-in-law (a family whose young daughter was kidnapped is featured in the docu).

It was interesting to hear the “right to life” discussed outside the context of the American pro-life movement, which I think most people have simply grown numb to. One Indian advocate pointed out that the right to life is the most fundamental human right a civilization can institute. If we kill babies because they’re girls, why not kill babies for being ugly? Or for any other number of reasons? As I’ve related before, this issue hits home for me because my parents did not want a girl when I was born. Had I been born during the age of ultrasounds, and had I not been born right under the gun of Roe. vs. Wade, I’m sure they would have considered an abortion. It also hits home for me because, as the mother of six girls, I’m very grateful indeed to live in a culture that hasn’t institutionalized female feticide and infanticide.

Of course, Americans find plenty of other reasons to abort their children, to the tune of more than a million a year– 17 out of every 1000 women of child bearing age (the high was 1981 with a rate of 30:1000). Strangely enough this isn’t much lower than China’s abortion rate of 24 per 1000 women. Maybe China needn’t bother with the snitches and police: in NYC for example, more babies are aborted each year than are born, for certain demographics. And it’s all done voluntarily.

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!

No es lo que piensas

As I mentioned previously, my parents did not want a girl when I was born. This was before ultrasounds, so the news of my gender after 9 long months of anticipation must have been a guillotine through my parents’ hearts. I know my father well, and I can see his 1973 face in the hospital waiting room– devastation, anger, his serious face all the more serious behind his black-framed nerd glasses. He probably swore colorfully in German, lit a cigarette (he quit when I was 4), went for a long drive, then hit some adult beverages. Not necessarily in that order.

So there was exactly one person in the household happy to see me when I was carried through the doorway in a pink blanket bundle: my paternal grandmother, who lived with us. She was 63 years old at the time, gray hair still black at the nape of her neck, her complexion perpetually suntanned to bronze, fiendishly smart and impeccably neat. Whether she took pity on my circumstances, or whether it was just kismet, I don’t know, but we took to each other like a fish to water. We were inseparable through my childhood. If I had a nightmare I stole down to her room. For a period it was unclear to me that my parents were my parents; I thought she was my parent, and that my parents just happened to live there. She took care of me day to night, kept me company, told me she loved me, nicknamed me Tesora (“treasure”), and held my always cold feet when we watched TV together. We talked about everything from politics, to TV shows, to her life in Buenos Aires before she came to the states at the behest of my father.

She had a friend in Buenos Aires who was some years older. They made a pact, the two of them, that whoever died first would make every effort to return– in some form– to advise what awaited on the other side. Not unexpectedly her older friend died first; not long after she appeared to my grandmother in a dream and said simply: No es lo que piensas– It’s not what you think.”

So of course my grandmother and I made that same pact with each other. Whoever died first, and it would probably be, and it was, her, would make every effort to return to the other to illumine the afterlife.

My grandmother died a few weeks after my 23rd birthday. I was newly pregnant at the time and remember enduring the nausea through the preparation for her funeral; at the wake I touched her cold face and felt the earth swallow me up on the spot. When I stood by her grave I wanted to throw myself in alongside her. If I hadn’t been pregnant, I would have just curled up in a ball somewhere and slowly wasted away.

In the back of my mind I remembered our pact, and while she did occasionally appear in my dreams it was nothing spectacular or informative. In fact when I dreamed about her she seemed simply alive, as though she’d never died, and it wasn’t until I woke that I’d remember she was gone. But seven years after her death, not long after my fourth daughter was born, I had a vivid dream that left me shaken.

In the dream I stood outside our old house. My grandmother lay on the ground gravely ill, and she died before my eyes. Not only did she die but I watched her body decay. It all happened quickly, as though in time lapsed photography, and then seamlessly her bones transformed into a lovely pink baby which was, to my surprise, suddenly in my arms. I walked into the house holding the baby.

I woke from this dream wondering if it was finally the message from beyond I’d been promised. And what did it mean? Was it a message of reincarnation? If so, why couldn’t she just come out and tell me? Or send a hindu mystic to lecture me?

I try not to think about her much. On the one had I feel she’s still alive inside of me. On the other hand the acknowledgement of the loss, that I’ve gone 17 years without her, years stacked on years, is unfathomable. So I don’t fathom it. I don’t even talk about her to my children, though I tend to keep my entire life before them a closely guarded secret. It took 16 years for the story of Pi Guy to come out.

The World Before Her

“The World Before Her” is an outstanding documentary detailing the crossroads of modernity and traditionalism in India. Canadian documentarian Nisha Pahuja follows two groups of women– one preparing for the Miss India beauty pageant, and the other being trained at a quasi-military Hindu nationalist camp for girls.

The beauty pageant contestants are subjected to 30 days of botox, skin lightening treatments, body-toning aerobics and “hot leg contests.” The girls at the Hindu camp are taught to commando crawl, shoot guns, and are drilled on the importance of being married by age 18 “because by age 25, women are unmanageable.”

I had not known this, but the existence of beauty pageants in India has long been a contentious issue, with traditionalists convinced that the trojan horse of such past times will usher in the decay of Hindu culture and human dignity. As Prachi Trivedi, the hard nosed daughter of a camp leader eloquently states: “Egyptians, Romans, they are history now. It’s going to happen with us. So we are trying to save ourselves. That is the only thing I want, nothing else.”

I was gobsmacked by how much “work” the pageant contestants– who are all stunningly and naturally beautiful– have done in preparation to capture the crown. The skin lightening chemicals are painful to endure (one girl is seen writhing on the table), and the net result is a greenish, unnaturally pale complexion that makes the girls look seasick. And what 19 year old, especially an unbelievably beautiful 19 year old, needs botox? So I felt the girls actually looked less attractive after they washed out their complexions and plumped up their lips. But my understanding is that skin whitening is all the rage in India.  Indeed, in “Enlighten Up,” the laughing guru had that same unnatural, corpse-like paleness to him.

The film opens on an upbeat note, and the comparison between the nationalist camp and the pampered beauty queens makes the documentary temporarily lean toward fluff piece, until 2009 Miss India and her mother describe how she narrowly escaped infanticide at birth. Miss India’s mother was given two choices by her husband: surrender the newborn daughter to an orphanage, or kill her.

pooja chopra
Pooja Chopra, Miss India 2009

What is startling about this is that the contestants draw from middle class, urban and suburban families. I had no idea abandoning and murdering baby girls was still practiced in urban, educated settings. I always assumed this sort of thing took place in backwoods villages by families with no education or means. I have seen pictures from Pakistani morgues showing rows of sheet-bundled infant corpses neatly lined up on metal tables, all of them baby girls killed at birth, their bodies discarded like trash.

At this point in the film, the images of beautiful women poised on display suddenly take on a chilling and haunting tenor. As the mother of six daughters, I found myself, while watching this film, very grateful to live in a society that does not routinely pressure women to abort, abandon, or kill baby girls. This is not to say that we don’t have our own gender hopes and disappointments; I know for a fact my own parents were bitterly disappointed when I came into the world a girl, as they had desperately wanted a son. But it would be virtually unheard of, in mainstream American society, for a child to be abandoned solely for her gender. Yet I doubt even the most tolerant and urbane Indian husband would endure six consecutive daughters (there were actually seven, if you count the one I lost).

If you’re a documentary hound like me, you know that the topic of a well done documentary is of little importance; it’s how the subject matter is handled that makes or breaks a documentary film. “The World Before Her” is beautifully filmed, expertly handled, and its fascinating characters shine unfiltered from the screen.  So even if you have no interest in Hindu nationalism or beauty pageants, Nisha Pahuja’s offering comes highly recommended.

The Origin of the Garden Gnome

My sister sent me an interesting article about the origin of the garden gnome.  Once upon a time, wealthy English gentry would hire people to be “living garden ornaments.”  These living novelties dwelled in huts, caves, or cottages nestled into the lavish gardens of their “owners.”  The hermits were a curio for guests and garden wanderers to marvel at, and after their term of living in the garden was up, they were sometimes discharged with enough money never to have to work again.

I don’t know if these hermits were religion hermits, in which case the wealthy patron might have seen his “decor” as a religious tribute.  Christianity has a long history of ascetics and hermits.  The tradition has dwindled at present day, but remains vibrant in other religions, like Hinduism.

hermit

Home for a gnome.

Lev Nussimbaum

I am reading an interesting biographical book, “The Orientalist,” about Lev Nussimbaum, a Jewish author from the Caucasus, who fled from the Bolsheviks to Germany where he eventually converted to Islam.  Apparently it was fashionable, in intellectual and artistic circles, to convert to Islam during this time period (early 1900s)– much like it is trendy for artists and intellectuals to embrace Buddhism or Hinduism (in the form of yoga and meditation) today.

Nussimbaum may or may not have been the author of the beautiful book, “Ali and Nino: A Love Story,” about a young Muslim man from the Causasus who falls in love with a Christian girl.  The novel paints a stunning and rich historical portrait of life in the pre-Soviet region, where, apparently, Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived together in fairly secular harmony, in a world where the arts and academia were esteemed.  This, of course, is the region of the Kuzari, whose nobility converted to Judaism en masse in the 9th century.  They are considered “wild jews” as they did not convert under Talmudic or rabbinical auspices, though they did later adopt Talmudic study.  In fact, I have read that anyone with a “levite” or “kohen” type surname can credit the Khazar conversion, as it was only their ignorance of halacha that allowed then to adopt these family names.

After the Nazis invaded Austria, Nussimbaum (who used a variety of pseudonyms and aliases, including Mohammad Essad Bey) fled to Italy, where he died of a blood clotting disorder at the tender age of 36.

nussimbaum

A Haphazard God

This is one I often listened to in high school:

Death is in the air tonight.  Two people I know, indirectly, are in their final days.

Death is a path we all take.  I often think of the line from “Wasteland,” A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many/ I had not thought death had undone so many.  Eliot closes the poem with a snippet from the UpanishadsDatta, Dayadhvam, Damyata/ Shantih shantih shantih.

I often hope to die under a tree like they supposedly do in Africa (at least, that’s what I’ve seen in movies).  Or alone at home.  I have a great fear of dying slowly in a hospital; but we know what we are, not what we might become.

There is a great, beautiful mystery to life.  I can’t tell you what it is but I know it’s there.  Maybe it’s what we call god, or magic, but I know life has great meaning, purpose and future, even if we are in the hands of a haphazard god.

Save the Bugs

I finished watching yoga documentary “Enlighten Up” yesterday, and I have to say I am nonplussed by the fervor swarms of white westerners (every yoga class I saw was 99% white) have for Hinduism– or at least certain aspects of Hinduism, namely yoga and meditation.  This is certainly not because there is anything wrong with Hinduism.  In fact, of what I’ve seen of the religion, it is quite beautiful, spiritual, and intricate.  What leaves me nonplussed is that I’m sure these same young white people despise (conservative) Christianity and are, more likely than not, rabidly pro-choice.  There is one scene in the docu where an upstate (white) yoga guru makes great show of rescuing a bug from his studio ceiling and letting it loose outdoors.  I had to wonder, while watching that, if he had ever been involved in a woman getting an abortion.  I guess it is easier to save bugs, than to regard an unborn child as a human being who deserves to be protected.

Hot button issues aside, I still wonder why westerners are so drawn to this esoteric eastern religion over their own religions, which ostensibly would be Christianity and Judiasm. Perhaps liberal branches of Christianity and Judiasm have lost their flavor of spirituality and philosophy, and have become little more than glorified social clubs.  I say “liberal” branches because Orthodox Judaism still places great emphasis on spirituality and, for lack of a better term, enlightenment.  There may be branches of Christianity that likewise explore spirituality par for the course; Orthodoxy comes to mind, though I’m not sure if it is at the level of Chasidism, for example.

Or maybe there are political motivations involved, because we all know how disgusting and intolerant conservatives are, and how wonderful and enlightened liberals are, and since conservatism has an ironclad association with Christianity, all things Christianity must be eschewed.  So what is a young, white, liberal to do when their lives feel hollow?  Join a yoga studio of course.