What Is A Western Hindu?

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Lord Shiva

Lord Shiva

My daily walk through the forest has become an important part of my devotional and meditative practices. I live in the midst of a State Park, and the swamp and forest are thick, dense, green and jungle like. It is not difficult to picture Bagheera in many of the dramatic live oaks set deep in the green.

Mein junglee ladhki hai! Which, if I remember right (or spelled it right), means “I am a jungle girl” in Hindi. Or, loosely translated, “I am a wild girl.” I set off into the forest knowing that it was likely to rain. Frankly, I’ve never seen so much rain. Sure enough, it began raining shortly into my walk, and like most people I instinctively turned to head home, but I got to a point where I realized that I was already wet, so what I was doing, running to my car to get home, was an unconscious act. It was a compulsion that made no sense. I was not the one making a B-line for the car, my conditioning, social and cultural norms and brainwashing compelled me to unconsciously, compulsively, head for the car. I got to the point on the trail where I could have gone straight to get to the car, or I could turn left and go deeper into the forest, following a path I do not know. I chose, consciously, to stop obeying an automatic and predictable compulsion to head for my car, and instead head off down a path that was unfamiliar to me.

And that was Shiva.

Choosing the path I did not know helped me pay attention to the new scenery as the rain slowly dripped on me. It was turning out to be a good walk, and I could feel the ecstasy of a realization coming on. For those of you who perhaps do not understand realizations, it goes like this. A realization written down is nothing you haven’t heard a hundred times before, a thousand if you are a seeker. Realizations are when the teachings we intellectually understand suddenly internalize, and the firsthand knowledge of a thing at the Godhead level can bring about an ecstatic state that can sometimes become close to orgasmic, though not sexual. This, is why, Shiva’s phallus is seen as erect in many of the ancient images. It is a symbol of being in a state of awareness so intense it can be hard to bear until you get the hang of it.

Soon, I had circled back to a familiar trail with the intention of heading back to the car, though this time consciously. I came around to the trailhead off the forest road and started up the path towards the car, satisfied with the long contemplative hike, all the way the rain falling. I thought about how I was a drop of rain, no different. It was the perfect realization to keep me company as I walked towards the car.

“The drop in the ocean, everyone knows
The ocean in the drop, A rare one does”

Kabir

I am a drop of rain, no different. And I am the frightened deer in the distance, the wetness in the ground, the mightiest tree and the old dead willow, and I am Shiva. Though this metaphor has been said a thousand times, this time I knew what it meant to say: “I am a drop of rain,” and I knew as the raindrops fell to tickle through my hair, that there was no separation between the rain and I. And that like each drop of rain, I form from the mist of Atman to manifest, to become physical, then act as the raindrop which falls to the ground to expire, wetting the soil to nourish life, evaporate, then rise and fall again and again and again, mired in Samsara (the cycle of death and rebirth). Until, of course, I get tired of the forming, falling and perishing and realize the pain of Samsara.

I am a raindrop that has become aware of the pain of falling. I want to evaporate and merge with Brahman, never to fall again.

As I pondered this realization of oft-heard wisdom (remember what I said about “realizations,” you’ve heard their wisdom so many times before, to where they sound like cliches, the realization is what changes that cliche to a vibration so powerful it becomes existentially experiential), I began to realize I did not know where I was. I was not headed for my car. A moment later I realized I had accidentally doubled back and gone in a loop around the same unfamiliar trail. Like the raindrop in my realization, I had been literally and physically going around in circles! Just as in Samsara! I was physically moving through samsara as I was realizing its nature through the drops of rain. I thanked Shiva, and soon got my bearings, took the right path and found my way back to the car.

This time, this drop of rain is falling in the form of a “Western Hindu.”

“Is it not true that a nation is, in reality, first and foremost perhaps a subconscious construct? You imagine the nation before it exists, and so it exists.”

Hindol Sengupta

I’ll tell you what a Western Hindu is… sometimes an honored guest, sometimes a curiosity, and sometimes sniggered at. There are some Indians who are amused by us, but privately dismiss us. Other Indians are delighted to meet Westerners who are so engaged in their culture and spirituality. We are, however, surprisingly spoken of with derision even by white male leaders of the American Vedanta movement as white women in saris with dots on their heads. Worst of all, many Western Hindus like to wallow in the “white guilt” gutter and try and be overly magnanimous and humble and dismissively shit upon themselves. But the sad truth is, what is the root religion of “the white man” in America? Well, being on American soil, should we be practicing the religions of the Cherokee? Should we take up the desert religion of the Old and New Testament? Face it, though some paths are seen as more acceptable for and among whites, none of the things we turn to come from our white caucasian heritage. Simply put, any religion a white person takes on is a robe designed and weaved by other people, usually in other lands.

And let’s just take the dismissive attitude of those few Indians and Americans, who will not entirely accept us, after all, we were not born South of the Indus river. Even one of my teachers, a white Swami, was sharing concern over how they are treated or thought of by Indians. Anyone who has gotten outside of mainstream white culture and has experienced other cultures knows that racism is not a one way street heading from light to dark. I have been a minority in a lot of situations (take 2 years living in Asia for a start), and I’ll tell you what… a minority is a minority no matter what the color of the skin.

It is often snobbishly said that it is impossible for anyone not from India to ever truly be a Hindu. But anyone believing that… is clearly not a Hindu, or at least, knows nothing about what Hinduism teaches. Yet, it’s only natural for a white woman to ask… then what am I? What is a “Western Hindu?”

I will say this, anyone who thinks a white person cannot really be a “Hindu,” in the spiritual sense, has completely misunderstood the core concept of Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism).

“That which is in us, the pure consciousness that observes all our senses. emotions and the ego and is beyond it all is what we really are. And that pure consciousness is common to every living thing on earth. It is an idea that inevitably stops you in your tracks. It is an idea to end all ideas: in essence, every living thing is the same.”

Hindol Sengupta, “Being Hindu”

Shiva is, and is as much for a white person as He is for an Indian.

We are all Atman, white or Indian. If you cannot accept that, you have not accepted Shiva.

We are all souls caught on the wheel of samasara, slowly rising towards liberation. ALL OF US!

In other words, to my dear skeptical and derisive friends, I ask, is it so that all the wisdom of the Hindu scriptures applies only to people born in India? Is it so, then, that only Indians can know God? Is it true that only Indians can meditate? Is it so that ONLY Indians are Brahman? Is it so that we are all in maya, that we are all manifestations of Atman… or is that only true for people born below a particular river?

And, is it not said again and again in “The Siva Purana” that Lord Shiva takes on many forms? Shiva takes on whatever form he chooses, and those forms are not limited to the borders or gene pool of India.

To think less of us, to dismiss us, to treat us as novelties, to turn us away from temples… is to deny Shiva, is to to live in ignorance… it is a sin!

A Western Hindu is a Hindu, if “Hindu” is a term used to describe a person who follows the specific sets of spiritual concepts laid out by the sages. Was Shankara ONLY talking to Indians? Was the vision of the sages limited ONLY to people from India… or are those truths universal?

OK, this is not debatable, those truths are universal! A Western Hindu is a Hindu. I will say this proudly (EGO), I have probably read many more of the core scriptures than most Indians at the Temples I visit. How many India-born Hindus have read “The Siva Purana?” I have read about 6 books to prepare for it and am well over halfway through the 2,200 pages! I have read many translations of “The Bhagavad Gita.” Geographic accidents of birth are as irrelevant as the ego itself.

An Indian friend of mine corrected me on concerning myself with what to call myself or what a “Western Hindu” is by saying that it might help if I stop thinking of myself as “converting to Hinduism” and simply think of myself as a sisya, as a seeker, and to drop the word “Hindu” and go with “Sanatana Dharma.”

To be honest, most of my encounters with Indians have been overwhelmingly warm and welcoming (in fact, most Indians are more welcoming to me than other whites), and they have proven to be wholly open to the things I say… and they treat me like an equal, like a seeker. This piece is written for those few who would refuse us entry into temples, and who would dismiss or deride us in the quiet of their own minds. It is written for the whites who crumble into apologetics and shameful self flagellation. Sadly, it is written primarily for my own myself, to my own weaknesses, for when I sometimes do not entirely accept that a white woman can be a Hindu either!

At last I had returned to my car soaking wet and sat for a moment with my thoughts and questions. Maybe it is so that it is almost impossible for a person from a Western background to truly understand the complexities of the Indian mind, culture, and spirituality… but that does not mean Shiva will choose to speak to an Indian over a white Northerner transplanted to the South. It does not mean that I have less a chance of attaining Samadhi, or of becoming realized.

If our physical births are births into maya. if our bodies are the gross layer, if the Atman is our true self, then surely the bit of dirt we were born upon is less significant an attachment than a child’s attachment to her favorite rattle. Those who think only one born in India can be a Hindu are living under the spell of Shiva’s maya! They are deluded, still attached to materialism. They believe that the matter from which we came, the land from which we emerged, makes us more or less Atman, more or less Hindu, more or less human. They are in darkness, in ignorance, and that is the only real sin in Sanatana Dharma.

Could I not have been an Indian in a previous birth? Could I not have been a spiritually advanced person who has reincarnated as a devoted seeker challenged and tested by her birth in the West? Isn’t gender, political ideology, financial status, nation of birth, aren’t all those things aspects of maya, of the material world? If a Hindu does not identify with the trappings of the material world, then why would geography be the only material trapping that would decide whether or not one attains moksha? Shiva (Krishna, Vishnu, Durga) chooses his followers, and he does not take gender, wealth, or nation of birth into account.

But it is so, due to my Western birth, I am not steeped in a culture that was founded on and inherently understands the juicy complexities and ultimate simplicity of Hinduism. It’s a challenge to take on this belief system from the West, but, as I intimated, perhaps that is one of the things I am to overcome. Is it fair to suggest I cannot overcome the country of my birth or the color of my skin? All aspects of our material manifestation are to be overcome. And while I’m at it… ultimately isn’t this sort of bias against “Western Hindus” just another form of bigotry?

Let’s consider also that the word “Hindu” was originally a derogatory word (Hindoo) used by the British. The term many so-called Hindus prefer is Sanatana Dharma. The word “Hindu” was meant to describe people from a geographic location, not a people who followed a specific spiritual school of thought. And what is the specific school of thought that makes up “Hindusim?” There is as much, if not more, diversity of thought within Hinduism than what exists outside it within the multiple faiths that are not Hindu.

Once it is analyzed, perhaps there are no “Hindus,” not in the spiritual sense. There are only seekers.

So, perhaps I do have this all wrong after all. Maybe I am not a Hindu, but Shiva has made his presence known to me as both nirguna and saguna, Mother has sent me signs, Ganesh has cared for me. I have trembled in the ecstasy of realization. I have seen a higher self. I know I am on the wheel of samsara, and I want off. I want to stop circling, to stop falling.

Maybe I am not a Hindu.

But I am a drop of rain.

No different.

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