Several people have contacted Swamiji expressing concern about a few recent articles published by major news sources in addition to several pieces in recent years on NPR which have insinuating that Hinduism is a radical and violent religion posing a threat to the liberty of Americans.
We are disappointed to see several major news sources have recently published insinuations that radical right-wing Hindu organizations are gaining ground in America and posing a threat to the US. These articles either claim or insinuate that radicals are becoming mainstream in Hinduism and that Hinduism poses a threat to Americans' freedom. No fewer than three defamatory articles have been published in the past month by major news outlets with several others published in previous months.
Huff Post Article
The Intersept Article
This comes in the Holy month of Ashvin when the Biden administration received criticism from the Hindu community for doing away with the spiritual observance of the Hindu festival of Diwali at the white house. The White House celebration of Diwali was started by President Obama and continued by President Trump. Though Biden hosted the largest celebration of Diwali in White House history this year, he is the first President not to invite a Hindu priest to offer prayers at the White House as a part of the observance of the religious festival. Many Hindus are asking if the Biden administration was trying to de-Hinduize Diwali. Is the message that Hindu Americans are supposed to take from all these events that they are welcome in America so long as they assimilate and leave behind their Hindu culture and identity? Diwali is one of the most important Hindu religious festivals celebrating the triumph of the light of peace and love and wisdom over the dark forces of selfishness, egoism, ignorance, and hatred.
We find the story written by Rowaida Abdelaziz and published by the Huff Post in particular quite concerning. This article compares Hindu Nationalism to "white national extremism" and implies that violence and hate are the dominant political position of Hindus. The article quotes South Asian historian and outspoken opponent of Hinduism Audrey Truschke “Hindu nationalism is threatening American multicultural values. If you like diversity, if you believe people who are different and who follow different religions should live together and that we are all Americans, Hindutva is a threat to that, and it is growing. It is not going away. It’s likely to get worse.” Hinduism is and always has been a very peaceful and arguably the most tolerant religion on the planet. Hindu scriptures urge people to practice ahimsa (non-injury to living beings) as the highest spiritual ideal, and foster tolerance between faiths by proclaiming "Truth is one. Paths are many." It is the Hindu ideal of nonviolence that inspired Mahatma Gandhi toward the nonviolent resistance of British oppression which led to one of the very few nonviolent revolutions in recorded history. If Hindu Nationalists are working to help return rights to Hindu people to practice their religion that were lost in the time of Colonial rule, this poses no threat to Americans, unless these Americans have a hidden agenda to destroy the Hindu culture and convert the Hindu people to their Christian beliefs and traditions. In practice, the indigenous Hindu people of India have not enjoyed all the same legal rights as members of other faiths for hundreds of years.
These types of fanatical reports may help increase the audience for news outlets, but they also affect the lives of millions of people. It is important that such stories are presented accurately and also delicately with regaurd to the difficult situation of immigrant communities who routinely face a great deal of discrimination and abuse. Hindus in America are an extremely marginalized group, without even considering the numerous challenges faced by Hindus historically in India. Though Hinduism is the fourth largest religion in America today with a population of around 3 million, this is only about 1 percent of the US population. Hinduism as a faith is not generally well understood by the American people. The scholarly writings on Hinduism derive a great deal of inaccuracy from the early Western writings on Hinduism authored by Chrstian missionaries with the intention to demonize the Hindu faith and convert the Hindu people to Christianity. The American education system still tends in many cases to present widely inaccurate and derogatory descriptions of Hinduism. The faith is often inaccurately portrayed in the media in the few cases that it is represented at all. It is shameful to see news outlets publishing stories which will likely serve to increase the many misunderstandings about the Hindu faith without having done their due diligence to evaluate the accuracy of such stories or the hidden agendas of the people they are reporting on. Indian Americans face a great deal of harassment, abuse, and discrimination, for the darker color of their skin, for language and cultural differences, and for their religion.
These articles which warn of the growing threat of violent and intolerant Hindus in America present a very inaccurate picture of Hindu Americans by leaving out many important details. For example, two of the articles cited above refer to cyberbullying and online threats experienced by Audrey Truschke. The articles state that this is indicative of a growing number of Hindu radicals trying to silence critical scholarship and to force others to adopt Hindu views. Nothing could be further from the truth. Hinduism is undeniably one of the most, if not the most, tolerant religion on Earth today with a long history of welcoming members of other faiths. Unlike Mrs. Truschke's Christian faith, Hinduism does not proselytise and has no traditional methods for conversion. True Hindu nationalists are simply seeking to regain the dignity and rights taken away during Colonial rule of India which are still lacking in many ways. There is no agenda to dismantle, harm, or even influence the peaceful coexistence of other religious traditions. Hinduism sees each religious path as true and valid, and so Hindus feel no need to convert others to their ways. After centuries of governance from foriegn powers that have tried to ridicule, outlaw, and destroy the Hindu faith, many Hindus are understandably in favor of a government which protects their right to exist alongside other traditions which are not always so tolerant.
These articles leave out the detail that Mrs. Truschke has a long recorded history of making racist, defamatory, and insulting statements against Hindu people and the Hindu faith. She claims that her attacks are aimed against a fundamentalist element within the Hindu tradition, but turns around and asserts that fundamentalism and violence are becoming predominent in mainsteam Hinduism and insults Hindu people and Hinduism as a faith. Mrs. Truschke's true motives for her attacks on Hinduism become clear in the light of the work of her husband and father-in-law. Mrs. Truschke's father-in-law is the pastor of the First Baptist church in Monterey, California. He and Mrs. Truschke's husband travel to India as missionaries to try to convert Hindus to their Baptist faith. Mrs. Truschke's image also appears on the church's website. This is a textbook example of colonization. Mrs. Truschke's tactics are copied from the playbook of the British colonists: spreading disinformation and insulting the indiginous Hindu people of India in order to demonize their faith so that they can be "civilized" and converted to the superior views of the "enlightened" Christians. When Mrs. Truschke uses insults like referring to Hindus as "cow piss drinkers" she is employing a rhetoric which has been used for centuries by the British colonists in their efforts to denigrate and dismantle the Hindu faith. She makes her own agenda clear to anyone paying careful attention, though the Huff Post clearly did not do their research before publishing this story. Yet Mrs. Truschke presents herself as a liberal and a supporter of religious freedom and many have believed these claims. It does not matter if we favor the Christian views of the colonial era or the modern day liberal political views of American Christians; whenever one culture presumes that their views, customs, and traditions are superior to those of another culture and they try to impose those views upon the indiginous people of a foriegn country, this clearly constitutes attempted colonization. When this is done so through deceptive means and through the denigration of a people's native customs and religion, this is extremely unethical. Mrs. Truschke's actions speak louder than her words and reveal her true identity as a wolf in sheep's clothing.
These sorts of articles which seem to be trying to educate Americans of the threat Hundism poses do not even tend to get the basic facts about Hinduism right. In a piece for NPR from April 22, 2019, Lauren Frayer, NPR correspondent for South Asia, states that Hinduism is a polytheism. This is not true. There are four major denominations of Hinduism today; Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Shaktism, and Smartism. All four of these denominations believe in One Supreme Divinity, so are by definition monotheistic. The British Colonists were the first to use terms like "polytheism" to describe Hinduism in an effort to relate the Hindu tradition to the already defamed Pagan traditions of pre-Christian Europe. With critical scholarship on Hinduism and Indian history increasing in America, one would think that such misconcpetions would be quickly identified and eliminated from academic texts. But these sorts of misconceptions remain commonplace, even for Western scholars on Hinduism. The question people should be asking is, how can we trust articles which cannot even seem to get the most basic details correct? The clear answer is that we cannot trust such articles. Unfortunately, the American public does not know enough about Hinduism or Indian history to understand when news outlets are presenting inaccurate or misleading information.
We as Hindu Americans have often experienced ourselves and our loved ones being exposed to all sorts of harassment, bullying, threats, and violent attacks and can understand how difficult it can be to face such adversities. We can understand and empathize with the hardships of cyberbullying Mrs. Truschke has experienced. Unlike Mrs. Truschke who has invited this sort of negative attention by insulting people's indiginous culture and religion, Hindu people in America must face these difficulties, without provocation, simply for being different. We admonish the insulting and anti-Hindu statements of Mrs. Truschke. There are simply more kind, more mature, and more effective ways to communicate. This insensitive, hurtful, and slanderous sort of speech is unacceptable, especially when it comes from a respected educator whose race and religious affiliation put her in a position of privilege and these comments are directed toward a marginalized minority community. We also admonish the actions of those who have sent insults and threats to Mrs Truschke. This is an action which makes the perpetrators no better than her. Receiving threats and insults online does not however have any clear correlation to the growth of a radical and violent Hindu element in the US as these articles assert. Cyber bullying as well as threats against college professors are increasingly common. Students are experiencing a great deal of cyberbullying as well. This is an unfortunate element of American society today which is regrettably experienced by many college professors who do not insult other cultures or religions and who have not commented upon Hinduism at all. The use of these alleged threats and insults as evidence for a radical movement in the mainstream tradition of Hinduism is preposterous at best.
While the assertation that any threats received by Mrs. Truschke are indicative of a growing movement of radical Hindus desiring to strip away the liberty of Americans is ridiculous, the evidence of hate crimes aginast Hindu Americans is clear. The FBI's publication of hate crime statistics shows a general increase in hate crimes against Hindus in America in recent years. The Hindu American Foundation has published a brief history of hate crimes against Hindus in America, listing dozens of documented cases of hate crimes perpetrated against Hindus. The instances of violence against Hindus in America have steadily increased since 9/11. I, myself, was seized by an angry mob in Time Square shortly after 9/11 when I was on my way to a Temple consecration in Pennsylvania and wearing my dhoti (robes) and tilakam (forehead markings). I was physically detained by a large group of angry men yelling death threats and saved by a bus driver who helped me to escape my attackers and hid me in a bus driver's lounge until I could safely depart the city when my bus arrived. I have heard many countless stories from Hindu people I know, many of whom were not so lucky as I. Most of these cases were never reported to the police - or in certain cases were perpetrated by the police themselves - and so these countless stories will go unrecorded. I have personally witnessed many cases of harassment, abuse, and descrimination - including mocking, insulting, physical attacks, denial of rights, imprisonment, and murder. Hindus routinely experience greater difficulty getting jobs, and being approved for loans or rental contracts, and Hindu organizations commonly experience difficulties to get permits to operate legally due to bigotry. We have shared on our facebook page multiple news articles about Hindu Temples facing discrimination. Our own Temple, after acquiring a property, was told by conservative Christian neighbors that "we had no legal rights because we practiced a false religion." The neighbors filed many complaints with the county and subsequently our permit application to enable us to pray there was denied by the county. Meanwhile our Christian neighbors were permitted to hold regular bible study groups and prayer gatherings without permits.
Hindus in India have faced terrible violence, oppression, and persecution at the hand of both Christian and Muslim invaders. They have witnessed the decimation of their cultural identity and the desecration of thousands of their sacred Temples. Today in India, attacks on Hindus by Islamic terrorists are increasingly common. Many Hindus are understandably concerned. There is a small but vocal group of radical Hindus today who speak against Islam and who advocate for violence. Though the frustrations of these people can be understood, their approach is unacceptable. The vast majority of Hindus respect Islam as a valad spiritual path which also teaches peace as their own tradition does. We must be careful not to group a whole religion in with a few radical fundamentalists. We spoke up about this point in defense of the great tradition of Islam after the 9/11 attacks in the US when many Americans became fearful and angry toward Muslims. The refusal of media outlets to be careful to portray Islam as a peaceful religion and to make a clear destinction between radical terrorists and mainstream Islam fueled the ignorance and fear of the American people and helped to increase the anger which lead to many misguided violent acts of rage and retaliation. In the first month after 9/11, 300 instances of discrimination and violence agianst Sikhs were reported by the Sikh Coalition including the murder of two Sikhs in Elk Grove, California whose assailant mistook them for Muslims. This is a good example of the widespread danger inherent to this sort of reporting. In a time when hate crimes against Hindus in the US are increasing, this type of reporting is extremely irresponsible and dangerous. In normal cases, for the most privileged members of society, defamatory remarks can be quite damaging. For underprivileged and marginalized immigrant communities, such remarks can prove deadly. We do not associate mainstream Christianty with radical hate groups like the Nazi Party or the KKK though they were both self-proclaimed Christian organizations. We understand these groups to be radical deviants not representative of the peaceful faith of Christianity as a whole. We must be very careful to make the same distinction when considering the few isolated radicals within the Hindu or Islamic faiths. These radicals are certainly not representative of either faith as a whole. But people are not well educated on these faiths, and the glaring deficiency of the educational system does not help, so reporters must take great care to ensure that the stories they write will not incite hate crimes against innocent and upstanding citizens.
What can we do?
In response to these articles, we will be publishing a series of articles about Hindu beliefs and practices with reference to popular Western criticisms of the Hindu faith along with insight into the historical origins of these criticisms. Though we do not have the platform that the Huff Post has given Mrs. Truschke to reach tens of millions of readers, or even the platform that Rutgers University provides to her to spread her hateful comments against Hindus, it is our humble prayer that these articles may help to increase awareness about Hinduism in America and to help to set straight a few of the most common misconceptions about the Hindu faith. When there is ignorance, often people respond with fear and hatred. When there is knowledge, people can be understanding, tolerant, and accepting of the diversity which makes America great. We hope that getting this information out will help increase acceptance of the great Hindu faith, which has contributed so much to American culture, but also help to inspire tolerance, understanding and promote the acceptance of the Islamic faith, the Sikh faith, the Jain faith, the Buddhist faith and all the religious traditions of all religious minorities and immigrant communities. Each of these communities and many others unmentioned have faced horrible abuse and discrimination and today in America struggle to enjoy the rights that white Americans take for granted. May these communities come together, having experienced similar hardships, to support one another in creating an atmosphere of tolerance and brotherhood for all humanity. We encourage Hindu people not to argue with these radicals intent upon spreading hate but to be tolerant, patient, forgiving, and loving in order to show these people the true meaning of our great Hindu faith. Last year, I was approached by the organizers of the Dismantling Global Hindutva conference and asked to speak against my Hindu faith. I did not respond. However often we are provoked by malicious forces intent upon spreading hate, we must strive not to respond. For us to repay harassment with punishment can only serve to increase the violence and hate in the world. There is too much violence and hate in the world today. We can only balance this by practicing love and compassion.
We should be proud to be Hindu Americans and we must work to educate people about the beauty of our ancient, vast, and influential tradition. We must not be discouraged. The brave Hindus who walked alongside the Great Mahatma Gandhi often faced terrible abuse at the hand of their British oppressors. Yet dharma prevaled. By the grace of God, these fine exemplars of our faith remained calm and peaceful and arose from their beatings free from the chains of colonial rule. Things have improved a great deal for Hindu people since that time, but we are still facing many overwhelming obstacles. I have been insulted, mocked, and physically attacked on numerous occasions for wearing my dhoti and tilakam in public. God gave me strength to alway respond with calmness and compassion toward my attackers. For this reason, and by God's grace, these people were swayed toward a better view of Hinduism. I will happily be beaten many times more if it might help improve conditions for my Hindu brothers and sisters. Because I was born in America to white parents, if I take off my dhoti and tilakam, I enjoy a certain privilege in America which is simply unavailable to most of my Hindu brothers and sisters. I cannot imagine the terror of knowing that such a situation is unavoidable. Yet I implore you all to remain strong and to remain faithful. If we can continue to follow the example of those brave souls who cast off the chains of British rule, and fight to preserve dharma by preserving our own inner peace and spreading peace in the world, understanding of the Hindu faith will increase in America and conditions will assuredly improve.
Peethadhipati (Spiritual Director)
Soma Matha Spiritual Center
Nov. 1st. 2022
A murti of Lord Ganesha being cleaned with mud from a sacred river and bathed with various substances.
Before these rituals are performed the bimba is physically cleaned with various substances like mud, and ash, and crushed bananas, and tamarind paste in a ritual called mūrti samskāra. This helps remove physical impurities from the carving and shipping and energies from the stone carver, those who have moved the image, and the priest conducting the rituals. Various other rituals of purification are conducted also. Notably, a series of adhivāsam rituals is conducted, submerging the statue in various substances. Jalādhivāsam is submerging the image in water. Kṣīrādhivāsam uses milk. Pañcagavyādhivāsam uses the five sacred substances from the cow (ghee, yogurt, milk, urine, and dung). Dhānyādhivāsam uses various grains like wheat, rice, barley, sesame seeds, and the nine grains associated with the nine Planets. Ratnādhivāsam uses the nine gems associated with the Planets and along with semi-precious gems and various metals and minerals including brass, copper, gold, silver, mercury, arsenic, sulfur, lead, tin and others. Puṣpādhivāsam uses various sacred flowers and herbs. Śayyādhivāsam involves laying the statue down on a comfortable bed and covering it with blankets. These offerings purify the image and help Divinity to come to dwell within it. Various colorful maṇḍalas are drawn and duly worshiped, and various homa (fire ceremonies) are conducted for a variety of purposes. There are many various rituals performed as a part of the purification and consecration (or reconsecration) of sacred Temple icons which require weeks if not months of preparation and the donation and participation of dozens of people to accomplish. The full range of the rituals is far beyond the scope of this article.
Adhivasas for an image of the Goddess: Jaladhvasa, Kshiradhivasa, Dhanyadhivasa, and Ratnadhivasa.
Preparations for the Netronmīlanam Ritual
The Netronmīlanam ritual itself is begun with Netronmīlana homam, a fire ceremony conducted to empower the ritual and to begin the process of opening channels to the inner realms. Various sacred herbs are used for the homam. Sattvic Ayurvedic herbs with nervine properties help to calm the mind and stimulate spiritual awareness like calamus, brahmi, amalaki, bhringaraj, sandalwood, costus root, spikenard, tulsi, sugarcane, darbha grass, black pepper, kakkola, netrabala, sage, angelica, and turmeric are used. Herbs which are good for eyesight and increase vision and perception in general and used also like triphala, dashmula, bhringaraj, netrabala, ginger, gudduci, licorice, lotus, carrot seed, dill seed, chamomile, and shatavari. Herbs which open channels to the inner realms are also used like turmeric, bhringaraj, brahmi, calamus, sandalwood, agar, camphor, tulsi, shalaparni, cardamom, sweet grass, cedar, juniper, comfrey, and shaileya. Other substances like goat’s milk, honey, limes, pomegranates, bananas, tamarind, and rice pudding (charu) are offered as well. Various gems and minerals are used in the offerings also like gold, silver, copper, diamonds, yellow sapphire, blue sapphire, gomed, cat’s eye, tin, agate, and pearls. Gold, silver, copper, diamond, yellow sapphire, and agate are also used to produce various implements for the rituals also. The homams are conducted with Vedic and Āgamic mantras related to spiritual vision. The netra mantra, “vauṣaṭ” is important and used often in these rituals. During the homam, ghee and honey to be used in Netronmīlanam is blessed and empowered for the ceremony by offering a small portion into the sacred fire. We are further empowering the rituals by conducting a series of homams to be performed after the conclusion of a series of eye-opening practices.
What is Netronmīlanam?
Netronmīlanam is a special ceremony performed as a part of rituals of consecration for Temple mūrtis (icons). Through these rituals, channels are opened to the inner realms and powerful spiritual energies established. A normal space becomes sacred, and mere statues (bimbas) or paintings / images (citrapaṭa) becomes sacred embodiments for Divine shakti. Prāṇapratiṣṭhā is the name for the “life-giving” ceremony through which a mere stone statue, called a bimba, becomes a living, breathing, icon, called a vigraha or mūrti.
The word idol is often used to describe these sacred temple images. This word was introduced along with its many negative connotations by Christian missionaries with the intention of weakening the Hindu traditions. Vigrahas are not idols, because idol worship implies that people are worshiping something less than God as God. Hindu theology teaches that God pervades all of creation. Sacred temple images are not viewed as God, but a point of focus for people’s prayers and meditations, and also powerful sacred object which hold spiritual energy and act to help open channels to the inner realms for the Devas (Gods / Angelic beings) to confer blessings upon souls in the physical realm. They are created with special imagery which uplifts human consciousness toward righteous thoughts and deeds which help bring about spiritual awareness. If we must use an English word to describe vigrahas in Temples, the word icon, which is also used by Christians for sacred images, is more appropriate.
Kumbhābhiśekam is the name for the ceremonies conducted to empower sacred images. Water is placed along with herbs and gems in sacred water pots called kumbhas. They Lord is worshiped in the waterpot, and through this process the water becomes imbued with Divine shakti (energy). Special maṇḍalas (mystical diagrams) are drawn with colored powders and energized with mantras to further empower the process. A series of yajña rituals is performed, offering various herbs, foods, fruits, flowers, ghee, and honey into the sacred fire, to remove negative energies and help manifest spiritual energy which is stored in the water. After the water is energized, it is carried to the Temple with pomp in a procession before being used to bathe the vigrahas. Bathing the deity is known as abhiśekam, and through this process, intense spiritual energy generated through the many rituals is transferred to the Vigraha.
Netra means “Eye.” And Unmīlana means “becoming visible, unfolding, or opening of the eyes.” After various rituals to purify the sacred space of the Temple and the images, Netronmīlana homams are performed to prepare for the ritual of Netronmīlanam. The ritual is performed to open channels to the inner realms so that the Devas can see the devotees in the Temple and hear their prayers. It is also performed to heighten the spiritual awareness of the Temple devotees of the sacred presence of the Devas. Normally people have trouble to see the Devas, because they dwell in the inner realms. The Devas likewise have trouble to see and to help the people. There is a veil between realms which obscures communication and interaction. The ritual of Netronmīlanam helps to increase visibility between realms in order to help inform and empower the efforts of the Devas to bless the people, and to increase human awareness of and receptivity to the blessings received.
Learn More About The Netronmīlanam Rituals
Contribute to Support our Efforts to Perform Eye-Opening Practices and Ceremonies
The Netronmīlanam ritual for the deities is performed at an auspicious muhurta (astrological timing). Until this time, the pupils of the eyes of the statues remain uncarved. At the time of the ritual, shilpis (temple stone carvers) carve the pupils, which are then blessed by priests with Vedic mantras for spiritual sight. Painted images, are completed by painting the pupils of the eyes. This process is performed behind a veil so devotees present do not send negative energies through glances (drishti) which could hinder the process. This also helps protect the devotees from the intensity of the ceremony which could stimulate experiences which could be overwhelming. The priests and shilpis are specially trained and prepared to endure the intensity of the rituals. In a small dose, spiritual energy acts like medicine. Like medicine, it can be more like a poison in excess. Just like people have built an immunity to poison by regularly ingesting small doses, the priests and stone carvers expose themselves to intense spiritual energies under the guidance of a guru to acclimate themselves to the intensity so they can endure the powerful rituals for the benefit of humanity.
For the ceremony, honey is kept in a golden cup, ghee is kept in a silver cup, and anjanam is kept in a copper cup. Before these substances are placed into the cups, different deities are invoked into the cup and worshiped with various offerings (puja upacharas). The Sun is invoked into the gold cup; the Moon into the silver cup; and Agni into the copper cup. After the vessels are blessed in this way, the honey, ghee, and anjanam are blessed with Vedic mantras and poured into the containers. These substances are then applied to the eyes of the icon at an auspicious moment along with Vedic mantras. Honey is applied with a golden rod with a yellow sapphire (pushparaga) tip. Ghee is applied using a golden (or silver) rod with a diamond (vajra) tip. Anjanam is applied with a gold (or copper) rod with an agate (akik) tip.
Consecrated Honey is applied to the right eye with the mantra:
चि॒त्रं दे॒वनां॒ उद॑गा॒-दनी॑कं चक्षु॑र्-मि॒त्रस्य॒ वरु॑णस्या॒ग्नेः।
आप्रा॒ द्यावा॑-पृथि॒वी अ॒न्तरि॑क्ष॒ग्ं सूर्य॑ आ॒त्मा जग॑तस्त॒-स्थुष॑श्च॥
ci̱traṁ de̱vanā̱ṁ uda̍gā̱-danī̍kaṁ cakṣu̍r-mi̱trasya̱ varu̍ṇasyā̱gneḥ |
āprā̱ dyāvā̍-pṛthi̱vī a̱ntari̍kṣa̱gṁ sūrya̍ ā̱tmā jaga̍tasta̱-sthuṣa̍śca ||
"The wonderful face of the Gods has arisen; the eye of the Mitra, Varuna and Agni. The Sun has filled the Heaven and the Earth and the middle space, He, the soul and the vision of all that moves and that does not move."
-Taittiriya Aranyaka 4.42.5
Consecrated ghee is applied to the left eye with the mantra:
तच्चक्षु॑र्-दे॒वहि॑तं पु॒रस्ता च्चु॒क्रमु॒च्चर॑त्।
पश्ये॑म श॒रद॑ श॒तं जीवे॑म श॒रद॑ श॒तं नन्दा॑म श॒रद॑ श॒तं मोदा॑म श॒रद॑ श॒तं भवा॑म श॒रद॑ श॒तं शृणुया॑म श॒रद॑ श॒तं प्रब्र॑वाम श॒रद॑ श॒तं अजी॑तास्याम श॒रद॑ श॒तं। ज्योक् चा॒ सूर्यं॑ दृ॒शे॥
taccakṣu̍r-de̱vahi̍taṁ pu̱rastā̎ ccu̱kramu̱ccara̍t |
paśye̍ma śa̱rada̍ḥ śa̱taṁ jīve̍ma śa̱rada̍ḥ śa̱taṁ nandā̍ma śa̱rada̍ḥ śa̱taṁ modā̍ma śa̱rada̍ḥ śa̱taṁ bhavā̍ma śa̱rada̍ḥ śa̱taṁ śṛṇuyā̍ma śa̱rada̍ḥ śa̱taṁ prabra̍vāma śa̱rada̍ḥ śa̱taṁ ajī̍tāsyāma śa̱rada̍ḥ śa̱taṁ | jyok cā̱ sūrya̍ṁ dṛ̱śe ||
"May we see and adore the Sun, who is like an Eye which looks after the welfare of the Celestials. May my eyes, ears, tongue and other organs reveal Divine truth for a hundred years. May I not be helpless and dependent in this time. May I live a hundred years joyous and free from disease. May we see this Divine light (of the Sun) for a hundred years. "
-Taittiriya Aranyaka 4.42.5
Consecrated collyrium is applied to both eyes with the mantra:
हिरण्यगर्भः समवर्तताग्रे भूतस्य जातः पतिरेकासीत ।
स दाधार पृथ्वीं ध्यामुतेमां कस्मै देवायहविषा विधेम ॥
hiraṇyagarbhaḥ samavartatāgre bhūtasya jātaḥ patirekāsīta |
sa dādhāra pṛthvīṃ dhyāmutemāṃ kasmai devāyahaviṣā vidhema ||
"In the beginning arose the golden seed; born, he was the sole lord of every creature. He upheld this earth and Heaven(. Which deva (except him) shall we worship with offering?"
-Taittiriya Aranyaka 4.1.8
Learn More About The Netronmīlanam Rituals
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When I first met Swamiji, I had been engaged in a Yajnam (fire ceremony) which continued for many months. At that time, I had a fire altar made of brick set up and a space to sleep. I would wake each day and eat a little food and then began making offerings to the fire. When it got dark, I would eat a little more food and sleep. Perhaps once in a week, I would walk around. As I walked, I could see the karmas of the people who passed by. Sometimes I would also see the people's relatives and acquaintances, though they were not physically present. Some people had illnesses; others had problems with their career or relationships. I could see as I passed by, that these karmas were shifting. It was not from anything I was doing, but from the shakti (energy) of the Lord manifesting in the physical realm through the pranas (subtle nutrients) of the ghee, rice, flowers, and herbs which had been offering into the sacred fire. I typically did not will for any of this to happen, but simply observed. Sometimes, random strangers or people that I knew would approach me and tell me of their problems and I would pray for them. But most days I simply sat making offerings into the sacred fire. I did pray that the Lord help the world as He see best as I made offerings and I tried to simply serve as an instrument in His hands for that purpose. It would be revealed to me which mantras and offerings would be most useful at a given time. Sometimes I was aware of specific situations or energies that we were working to mitigate, but many other times there was no such knowledge and I would simply make the offerings I was guided to.
At this time, I was not in the habit of conversing much with people, reading magazines, internet or new papers or watching television. I was very much out of touch with current events and culture. I did not hear about world events, popular music, fashions, celebrities, or politics. Yet one day, I saw a Swami appear beside the fire. He looked to me like I would imagine an ancient sage would look; long beard, beaming grin, thin figure, simple robes and wooden Padukas (sandals).
He smiled and said "Come see me," and then he disappeared as suddenly as he had come. I had no idea who he was. I had never seen him before. I noticed he wore the Kavi robes of a Sannyasi (monk).
I said "Wait! Swamiji, I don't know who you are. I don't know where you are. How do I 'come see' you?"
Disturbed by this command which I had no idea how to fulfill, I concluded my offerings and walked away from the fire altar. With no idea what to do, I paced around anxiously and suddenly came across a magazine opened to a page with an ad for a teaching given by Swami Paramanandaji. The ad had his photo, and I recognized immediately that he was the same Swami from my vision by the fire. By some great luck or more likely on account of the karma of previous lives, Swamiji gave several teachings in nearby towns which I had the opportunity to attend. As I approached the event, I could feel Swamiji's shakti for nearly a kilometer. Coming into the physical presence of that Saint was like coming into an supercharged energy field which shook me to the core. Everything felt heavy around him. The gravity pulled down more in that space. I felt I understood why they call such a teacher a "guru" (guru means heavy in Sanskrit). I could feel my body tremble as it was flooded with Divine shakti and I felt the wall of maya tremble. The world shook around me and what was false began to fall away in the presence of the master. As he spoke in Hindi through a translator, I could not really understand his words or those of the translator. My awareness went inward and there was great difficulty to focus on the outer experience of words. As I sat in his divine presence, I felt many deep-seated pains in the body, of which I had been previously unaware. A tightness in the chest, fear in the back, sharp pains in the neck and head... These pains seemed so intense it was difficult to bear. The intensity was so great that at times I feared the physical body could not possibly sustain the experience and that it would surely perish. It was possible in this Saint's presence for me to tap into previously inaccessible sensations. Though his awareness helped guide and stabilize my efforts, it was a definite struggle for me to come to a place of stillness in relation to each of these intense experiences. They came one after another by the dozen, for days as I had the great fortune to be in the presence of this master. Each experience, seemed more intense than the last. But eventually, with great effort, I would come to a place of acceptance of the experience and it would pass. As these experiences passed, I felt as if imposing weights were lifting from my body and I saw brilliant colored lights dissipating from my aura.
Later I witnessed Swamiji conduct a surprising feat involving fruit. It was during a subsequent meeting with Swamiji when he had come back to the town where I was living a different year. Swamiji was conducting a discourse after which the attendees were to be invited to come forward to receive Swamiji's blessings. At this point, I knew a few of his disciples who had made arrangements for the event. I heard them discussing the arrangements with concern. They had estimated that only a couple dozen people would attend the event, but as people continued to arrive, the actual number was closer to two hundred. Swamiji had requested that they buy a small amount of fresh fruit for him to give to the people attending the event as a blessing. They bought more than they thought they would need, but it was clear that there were many more people than fruits. They asked Swamiji if they should rush to a nearby store to buy more fruit, because it seemed clear there would not be enough for everyone there.
Swamiji said "Don't worry about it."
When Swamiji's discourse had come to an end, the devotees were anxious about the fruit situation and asked Swamiji if they should change the plan of telling people that he would be giving fruits as a blessing. He instructed them to put the fruits into a few baskets and not to worry. So they did as instructed. I was fortunate to be able to sit close and watch as Swamiji gave his blessings to all the people who had attended the event. Somehow, he gave a fruit to every one of nearly two hundred people from a couple baskets holding several dozen apples and oranges. Quite a few people received two or more fruits, presumably for people close to them who had not been able to attend the event. When the whole event concluded, I rose in respect as Swamiji walked away and watched with devotion until he had departed. After Swamiji had gone, I noticed that there were many fruits still in the baskets and scattered around the place where he had been sitting, many more than had originally been in the baskets of fruits brought by the devotees. Though most people who attended the event had no idea what had happened, I saw some of the devotees who had expressed concerns about the fruit before the event cleaning up afterward. We grinned at each other in acknowledgement.
It was at another teaching Swamiji was giving around the time of this event that I had an amazing experience. I prostrated before the master and as I arose, he grinned radiantly and pointed above my head. Then I saw a bright golden light, which appeared like a large candle flame burning just above my head as if ignited by his gesture. It was warm and bright. The light was so bright in fact that its vision made it difficult to see other things. For about a week I struggled to see with the physical eyes as the inner eye remained focused on the flame growing and becoming brighter above my head. I could not walk around or drive because it was hard to see anything other than that light. I desisted from all scheduled activities, because it wasn't really possible to do much of anything else apart from focusing on this experience. Apart from the difficulty I was experiencing to see things, there were intense sensations as the light above the head seemed to be affecting me. It felt bright and pure and I felt quite differently. I felt that I must come into alignment with its radiance, and also that it was burning away certain attachments and fears. It seemed to have an affect of exposing what darkness was within. As this darkness would come to light, I would experience it acutely. Sometimes I would have to simply sit focusing on what had arisen with dedicated attention until it passed. Sometimes, the physical body would respond as if it was ill as toxins were purged from the body. It was an extremely intense experience, but not unbearable.
Once I felt that I had become somewhat more comfortable with the presence of this light in my realm of experience, I saw it begin to expand. I saw what had appeared like a large candle flame burning above the head descend into my body as if it was bathing my aura. Though it seemed to dissolve into my body, it also remained above the head. Then I watched as the flame above the head began to extend to a greater area. First it seemed to project for several feet, but gradually this increased until it extended hundreds of meters. I noticed that the light seemed to have an affect on other people around also. It appeared to illuminate what darkness was present in them and to feed and sustain what light was there. For some time I felt somewhat self-conscious and concerned that people would be uncomfortable with this experience, but gradually I felt more at peace with it. Every person is affected in a subtle way by the energy of the people they come in contact with. This is simply the way of the world. I reasoned to myself, why should it be any different in this case? I saw that most people seemed to be repelled by this light but a few felt drawn to it. For many it seemed to cause outbursts as it purged what difficulties they were bound to. For others it facilitated healing and a sense of calm.
Occasionally people would approach me and yell at me or physically attack me. To a casual onlooker, this would have seemed random and senseless. I, however, knew they were reacting to the light my Guru had shown to me. Other times people would approach and tell me they could see a brilliant light in my aura and ask for my blessings or advice. For several years, most people simply avoided me altogether and I remained in my apartment meditating for the most part not interacting with anyone. Those who planned to come to visit me would often suddenly become gravely ill or injured and cancel their plans. After some time I became able to somewhat withhold the energy of this light to make it much more comfortable for people to approach, but I have not learned any way to withhold it altogether. Now it is often still much the same, and many people seem to avoid me or to have great difficulty to approach. But a few have become more able to come close so that I can talk to them about the experiences I have had or offer my insight into their lives. Many others have come to help with our efforts to open a temple and teaching center. But the more they help, the more it opens them to this energy. People still often seem to become overwhelmed with emotion and start yelling or crying, or much more often, they simply flee suddenly. For those who feel the emotions as they begin to arise from within them, this process is much easier. For those who can simply observe as they pass, this seems like a great blessing. Many, however, seem to try to make sense of the feelings instead and become confused and begin to make irrational decisions as they act out the emotions which seem to have a grasp on them. Others seem to lack the ability to allow themselves to feel what is coming up for them and they then begin to experience difficulties in their lives which trigger the release of these feelings. Though most do not really seem to understand what is occurring, they often have a sense that their interaction with me has something to do with the experiences they are having. Some hate me for this, and others seem to love me for this. I don't take any of this personally and I do not expect any to remain for an extended period. It is simply their response to the flame that had been ignited in the presence of my Guru.
I view this all as a blessing which keeps me focused on my spiritual practice. Even if I have hired a contractor for a job, I do not expect for them to finish that job. Suddenly people seem to become overwhelmed by this light and seek to distance themselves. I cannot fault them, I myself have often felt a desire to retract from the light which continues to attack all that is impure within me. But I do not have the choice to retract. Something has begun for me which it seems cannot be reversed. Perhaps when I have more completely integrated this light into my own experience, I will develop an even greater ability to withhold it so that others may come close without being so affected. I do not know. I do not care. I do not really have a choice in the matter. All I can really do is watch as things unfold.
Though I do not see the light constantly like when it was first illuminated by the master's presence, I do feel it with me constantly and I am able to see it in my meditation. I am very much aware of its presence which forces me to focus inwardly. I am very grateful for this presence which focuses me. It is an inner companion to me which is not capable of disappointing in the way outer circumstances are. It is still and steady and ever-present, whereas the outer things are temporary and changing.
On the last time I met with Swamiji, I got invited to sit and eat with him. Swamiji did not finish his food. I thought, we must take this food as prasad. I felt a great desire to take the food left behind by the master. His close devotee took the food before I could and as he took it I felt instantly satisfied. After eating Swamiji arose and we stood in respect. As he walked away I felt I would not meet with him again in the physical form in this janma. He got into a car and I expected them to drive Swamiji away immediately. But there was some delay and Swamiji sat in the car for quite some time, maybe 30 minutes or more. I had been silently practicing japa as japa is many times more powerful in the presence of a Saint. So I sat and watched Swamiji in the car and continued my japa. He closed his eyes and meditated with me. Then I saw a light brighter than 10 million Suns like the scriptures describe when they say Koti Surya. It was difficult to look at. To gaze at this light burned away the sense of self. I could not be and gaze at this light. But by Swamiji's grace I was able to look. I saw it first above the sahasrara and then it descended and filled my body and encircled my. Then my senses became still and awareness merged into the light. The light covered my being and I ceased to exist. I felt an overwhelming and intense sense of transcendent bliss. This was the second time I have experienced samadhi. I do not think that the experience lasted long, though there is no way to be certain as I had no sense of time. I came back to awareness of the body and saw Swamiji grin before they drove away.
The next year Swamiji was scheduled to return to the US, but he had a heart attack and his doctors advised against travel. Some devotees then asked him, "Swamiji you seem to know the past and present and future, did you not know you would have a heart attack?" He said "Yes, I knew heart attack would occur." They looked at him in amazement and asked "Swamiji, we have known you for many year and have seen you heal thousands of people. Why did you not heal yourself?" Swamiji just laughed and asked "Why should I heal myself? Traveling to America to teach is fun. Heart attack is also fun. Why should I second guess the Lord whose will for all is perfect?"
These are just a a few experiences with Swamiji I have been allowed to share. Perhaps in the future, I will be permitted to share even more. I have not seen Swamiji in many years, but he remains within me in the form of this inner light which he had revealed to me. He appears to me and guides me occasionally. I watch his videos lectures with joy and his ashram in Haridwara broadcasts the arti to Swamiji live occasionally. But I my physical contact with Swamiji is extremely limited and I doubt if I will see him again in this lifetime. Long after he has left from his physical body, I will feel that he lives on in me in the form of the light he allowed me to see within. For his ongoing presence in my life, I am extremely grateful.
5 Western Yoga Practices that are Disrespectful to the Ancient Spiritual Tradition of Yoga by Swamiji
I am very happy that Yoga has become so popular in the West, but I am concerned about how the practice is changing and the effect that this has on Hindu people worldwide. These views are my own, and I do not claim to express a position that is representative of all the widely varied beliefs of Hindu people. However, I have worked extensively with Hindus throughout the world, for nearly 20 years, serving as a Hindu priest and a teacher of the traditional, spiritual practice of Yoga. I believe that many Hindus I know would share in a general agreement with many of the sentiments of this article, even if they do not agree precisely with each point. Yoga is and always has been a profoundly spiritual practice which has its origins in the Hindu faith. It is a sacred and revered practice to Hindus and an integral part of their faith and culture.
Many Hindu immigrants in the West have faced major discrimination and persecution on account of their faith. It is not possible in most US cities for openly practicing Hindus, who wear the traditional bindu, tilakams or other religious insignia, to easily find employment. There are many documented cases of Hindus being teased, mocked, or attacked for their cultural and religious differences from the Christian majority. In many locales in America, it is not possible for Hindu organizations to get permits for Temples or Cultural Centers, despite laws that prohibit Cities and Counties from discrimination based upon faith. As a result, many Hindus in the West have stopped the practices which in India kept them connected to their culture and their faith. Even if these practice have not been abandoned altogether, they have been quieted and concealed by most for the sake of a safe and successful life in which they can support their families.
Yet some of the same practices, which earn Hindus scorn when practiced as a part of their religious customs, have been seen to increase the popularity and marketability of Hollywood stars and musicians. Westerners wearing a bindu on the forehead is one example, and practicing Yoga is another. For Westerners to lightheartedly adopt the same practices, which in their original spiritual context are prohibited by society at large for Hindus, adds insult to injury. It leaves Hindu immigrants with a bad experience of practicing their cultural and religious heritage while simultaneously devaluing it and transforming it into something much more vapid and mundane.
Even in India, Hindus have faced similar oppression and persecution for centuries by Buddhist, Christian and Muslim invaders. The Christian Rajas outlawed many Hindu practices and they even translated the Hindu scriptures into modern Indian languages with the intent of exposing the inferiority of Hindus customs and promoting their own Christian dogma. The harm of such efforts can not be underestimated as the history and the traditional beliefs and practices of Hinduism are not well understood, even in India, because people are still influenced by the translations of the Christian missionaries. Violent and deceptive means to convert Hindus to other faiths have been used for centuries and continue in India today. I have heard stories of Christian missionaries in India tricking school children into conversion by rigging a school bus engine to fail when triggered. When the bus failed, the children were urged to pray to their Hindu Gods to fix the bus. After these prayers went unanswered, the children were urged to pray to Jesus. Then the driver triggered the engine to start and the children were impressed by the apparent superiority of Jesus and asked to convert. In other cases, Christian organizations have gone to underdeveloped areas lacking modern medical facilities. Using major resources from the West, they build state of the art hospitals and offer affordable health care. When the local medical providers have been driven out of business, these hospitals begin refusing care to all non-Christians and in cases have forced patients to get tattoos of crosses to prove their Christian faith before administering treatments. These acts are nothing short of an atrocity. If people can convince others to convert to their religion by the merits of the religion itself, this is acceptable, but these deceptive and forceful tactics are unconscionable. Yet these practices are allowed by Hindus and the Indian Government in a perhaps misguided effort to practice non-violence and tolerance.
Ahimsa, or non-violence is extolled as supreme among virtues by Hinduism. This belief inspired a completely non-violent revolution as brave Hindus cast off the oppressive hand of British imperialism through non-violent protest. But it has also lead to Hindus accepting tyranny and oppression in certain cases. Hindus believe that all things are good, because the Lord dwells in all things. They strive to maintain peace and joy in adversity due to the faith that what befalls them is their karma which they must face. But Hindu people must make a conscious effort to stand strong for their faith and culture in positive and non-violent ways or the fate of the Sanatana (Hindu) Dharma, the oldest continuously practiced religion in the world, is uncertain. Western thought and modern science encourages Hindus to view their spiritual tradition as superstitious and silly, and many Hindus are losing faith. This is the modern climate for Hinduism throughout the world. Even if Western Yoga practitioners do not intend to cause harm or to diminish the beautiful spiritual customs of Hindus, when they extract what suits them from the Hindu spiritual tradition while leaving behind the spiritual essence, they are unknowingly reinforcing the efforts of the many Western missionaries, scholars, and rulers who have aimed to causes Hindus to disparage their own culture and religion.
To put this situation in perspective for Westerners, one has only to imagine an analogous possibility involving the Christian faith. If Christians were persecuted and their religious practices prohibited by society, but then a practice like Christian Communion was taken out of context and marketed by non-Christians as an exercise routine, this would obviously not be acceptable. I can imagine instructors saying “Stand, sit, kneel. Join the palms together. And repeat.” This may sound ridiculous, but this is exactly what Westerners have done with the Hindu spiritual practice of Yoga. To me, Yoga is an integral and sacred part of my Hindu religion. I have capitalized the word “Yoga” in every usage throughout this article, in the same way a Christian would Capitalize the name “Christ.” Yoga is not a mere exercise to help people lose weight or to feel better about their bodies. Nor is it a trend to be marketed for profit. Yoga is a spiritual practice revealed by the Holy Sages of my Hindu religion, and it is a tried and tested technique for direct communion with the Divine.
I am not at all opposed to Westerners practicing Yoga. The mystical science of Yoga was revealed by the Sages in India for the benefit of humanity. But people who practice Yoga should be aware of its origins, its purpose, and the depth of the practice. If a person uses the practices of Yoga to deepen their spiritual experience, this honors the tradition. But Yoga is not an exercise and the benefits of Yoga are much different than those of physical exercise. If a person is using the practices of Yoga for other purposes, they should not call it Yoga, in respect of the tradition that is held sacred by over a billion Hindus worldwide. Call it exercise. Call it aerobics. Call it Pilates. I would think this would not offend anyone. Most of the poses done in Yoga studios in the West were not even a part of traditional Yoga practice until the 20th century, and most of the poses and practices talked about in the Yoga scriptures are never practiced in Yoga studios. However, if practitioners of this modern exercise, which has drawn influences from traditional Yoga, want to continue using the borrowed Sanskrit name “Yoga,” they should delve deeper into the mystical and spiritual science of Yoga in the traditional ways. The world would be a better place for their sincere efforts.
1) Stripping Spirituality from the Practice of Yoga
Since the mystical, spiritual teachings of Yoga were first brought to the West in 1893 by His Holiness Swami Vivekananda, Yoga has become increasingly popular. Today, 36 million Americans practice Yoga. But as the popularity of Yoga has increased in the West, the practice has changed. Swami Vivekananda wrote several books in English on Yoga, but he, himself did not teach or practice Asanas (postures) beyond a few simple sitting poses for meditation. In modern Western Yoga classes, the poses are everything and meditation is an afterthought, if it is not omitted entirely. Yet meditation and its benefits are the goal of every other practice of Yoga. In many Western Yoga classes, spirituality is intentionally omitted in order to not offend or to entice a broader range of students to attend classes. Yoga teacher training programs do not go deeply into the spiritual aspects of the practice, and many Western Yoga teachers know very little about the origins and history of the practices, or their intended purpose. This has led to a very different idea of what Yoga is in the West. Everyone has heard of Yoga, but few understand its mystical purpose or that it is inextricably connected to the Hindu tradition from which it arose. I have even given teachings at Yoga studios that have later asked me “Can you speak less about Hinduism? We don’t agree with the Hindu beliefs or practices. Can’t you just leave out the spirituality? ...or if it must be included, could you teach about Yoga from the perspective of a nicer religion like Christianity or Buddhism?” Many Westerners want to strip spirituality from their Yoga practice. This is understandable, because it is hard work that requires a lot of faith and courage to face the inner karmas and mental patterns. But it is simply not possible to strip spirituality from Yoga practice, and for that practice to remain Yoga. The meaning of Yoga in Sanskrit is “Union,” and the goal of Yoga is to realize the Divine within, or to merge one’s awareness into the Divine source. Without this goal and experience, it is not right to call it Yoga.
2. Claiming Yoga is Not a Spiritual Practice
This one is perhaps the fault of many Eastern Yoga teachers who have claimed that the mystical practice of Yoga transcends any particular Religious tradition. In the East, Yoga is practiced by Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists, and the mystical practices and beliefs of Yoga are indeed similar to those of other mystical traditions (like the Gnostic Christians, Sufi Muslims, or Kabbalist Jews) . But these traditions all teach the practice of non-violence, and a belief in dharma (spiritual duty), karma (the importance of right action) and reincarnation as a basis for the practice. Many Westerners, have misunderstood the statements of Eastern Yoga teachers and taken them to mean that Yoga is a secular practice which is not spiritual or religious. The traditional scriptures on Yoga are deeply spiritual and inextricably based in Hinduism. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are often cited as a source for claims that Yoga is not a religious practice, but the text is widely misunderstood. Patanjali was a Shaiva Hindu, and he was sent by his Guru, Nandinathar, to South India to convert the people to Shaivism. He consecrated temples to Shiva in Tamil Nadu and his place of Samadhi (burial) is at a Shiva Temple.From the large number of Shaiva Hindus in this area today, it would seem that Patanjali’s mission had been quite successful. The Yoga Sutras clearly state that before a person begins the practice of Yoga, they must practice certain restraints and observances, including Ishwara Pranidhana. Pranidhana means puja (a Hindu worship ceremony) and Ishwara means Lord Shiva. It is not coincidental that Patanjali chose a name of Lord Shiva and not a non-sectarian name for the Lord, like Brahman. The Yoga Sutras were written to as a guidebook for those wanting to practice Pantajali's Shaiva Hindu religion. Though the practice of Yoga may not involve spirituality for many Westerners, it is not right to claim that Yoga is not a spiritual practice. For the Hindu people who religious tradition gifted the practices of Yoga to the world, Yoga is a revered practice and a fundamental sacrament of their religion.
3. Focusing Practice Mainly on the Physical Postures
Yoga is a tradition which teaches of eight successive practices: 1. Yama - Restraints 2. Niyama - Observances 3. Asana - Sitting Comfortably 4. Pranayama - Calming the Breath and Mind 5. Pratyahara - Withdrawing the Senses from External Stimuli 6. Dharana - Concentrating the Mind 7. Dhyana - Meditation and 8. Samadhi - Union with the Lord. Most Yoga classes in America consist almost entirely of the physical postures originally designed to enable a Yogi to sit comfortably for hours of meditation. The Yoga poses were not designed as an exercise routine, and they are not well suited to be used as such. If a person searches the word Yoga in a Google image search, they will mainly find photos of white women doing Yoga poses. What is worse is how most of the major Yoga organizations in the US describe the benefits of Yoga. The Yoga Alliance, which is the largest trade organization for Yoga professionals in America, lists the following benefits of Yoga on their website: Stress relief, pain relief, better breathing, flexibility, improved strength, weight management, improved circulation, presence, and inner peace. All of these benefits could be claimed of most any aerobic exercise, but the true benefits of Yoga are not listed at all. The physical postures are only one very small component of a much larger system of practices. Ultimately, the practice of Yoga is aimed at Moksha (liberation from the confines of the body, mind, matter, karma, and reincarnation) and Samadhi (experiencing union with the Divine). This is the highest purpose of Yoga practice, to which any other attainments are secondary. Yet the traditional Yoga scriptures list a broad range of mystical and spiritual experiences and powers that can arise from Yoga practice including: levitation, being in two places at one time, the ability to make oneself invisible, making oneself very small or very large, healing diseases at will, knowing the past and the future, knowing the thoughts and actions of others, seeing distant or hidden objects or people, the ability to see and communicate with deceased souls and spiritual beings, being able to move or manipulate matter at will, being able to leave the physical body and enter into the body of others, and being able to transform base metals to gold. These and many more are described as siddhis (mystical powers) that commonly arise from the practice of Yoga, yet none of these are listed by the big Western Yoga organizations. Though Hindus can be proud that Western culture has embraced their tradition of Yoga, it is disheartening to see that Westerners in general have refused to acknowledge the traditional spiritual benefits of the practice, and that the practice has been relegated in the West to the place of a secular exercise routine.
4. Practicing Yoga without Yama and Niyama
Traditional sources on Yoga emphasize the importance of practicing certain restraints (Yama) and observances (Niyama) before any of the other practices of Yoga are attempted. The requisite practices of Yama and Niyama are considered critical before the practice of Yoga can begin. These practices are addressed in depth in the traditional Yoga scriptures, but little attention is given to the practice of Asana (postures). For example, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali has 16 verses elaborating upon the fundamental practices of Yama and Niyama, but only one line describing Asana. All that Patanjali says about Asana is, “Sit still in a comfortable position.” It is clear from these texts that Asana practice had very little importance in traditional Yoga. But Western practitioners of Yoga seem to usually omit the important practices of Yama and Niyama and skip to subsequent practice of Asana. The practice of Yama and Niyama is essential to prepare a seeker for the experience which the later practices of Yoga induce. As the process of Yoga begins to reveal the vasanas (karmic imprints) of the mind, it is quite likely that the intensity of thoughts and feelings which begin to purge from the subconscious mind would become overwhelming unless a seeker has been prepared by the dedicated practice of Yama and Niyama. They build the character and experiential knowledge of the process of consciousness going within, which is necessary for a person to have success in the practice of Yoga. The renowned Yoga teacher B.K.S. Iyengar said “The practice of Asana without the backing of Yama and Niyama is mere acrobatics.” I would go beyond this to say that a person whose practice of Yama and Niyama is advanced is a great Yogi, whether or not they observe any of the other practices of Yoga. A person who claims to be practicing Yoga should sincerely evaluate themselves as to whether or not they are observing these most basic Yoga practices, and they should strive each day to implement them more and more into their lives. The 10 Yamas and Niyamas listed by the traditional texts on Yoga are (Patanjali’s list has only 5 of each):
1. Ahimsa - Non-violence in thought, word, and deed. This principle restraint of Yoga is the reason that Yogis traditionally observe a strict vegetarian diet.
2. Satya - Truthfulness
3. Asteya - Not stealing or taking credit for the works of others
4. Brahmacharya - Celibacy for the unwed and marital fidelity for the married
5. Aparigraha - Non-possessiveness / Renunciation of property
6. Kshama - Forgiveness
7. Dhriti - Fortitude and Steadfastness
8. Dhaya - Compassion
9. Arjava - Sincerity and Straightforwardness
10. Mitahara - Moderate appetite
1. Tapas - Practicing austerities like fasting, wearing robes (or plain, unfashionable clothes), sleeping on a hard floor, remaining awake for extended periods, practicing silence, etc.
2. Santosha - Contentment
3. Astikya - Maintaining faith in God, Guru and Scriptures
4. Dana - Charity, Donation
5. Ishvarapujana - Worship of Lord Shiva through the 16 traditional daily offerings
6. Siddhanta Shravana - Listening to recitation of sacred Hymns
7. Hri - Remorse
8. Mati - Mindfulness
9. Japa - Repetition of Mantras
10. Vrata - Observing Holy days, pilgrimages and sacred vows.
5. Practicing Yoga without a Guru
Traditionally, no serious student of Yoga would ever attempt practice without the instruction and initiation of a Guru. Practicing Yoga without a Guru is ineffective at best and dangerous at worst. Traditional wisdom warns that without guidance and the energetic support of a living Guru, the practices of Raja Yoga designed to awaken Kundalini will lead a person to the asylum, hospital, or cemetary. The point is emphasized by all the traditional scriptures on Yoga. Yogic philosophy teaches that it is the nature of the ahamkara (ego) to be bound and to bind itself further by its very nature, but that it is the nature of a realized Guru to free the soul from maya (delusion) and karma (actions done out of this delusion). By Guru, what is meant is a realized master, who is uniquely qualified to lead souls to liberation by his (or her) own practice which has lead to a direct experience of the Divine. This does not mean a Yoga teacher who has had 200 hours of training, but someone who has humbled themselves before their own master and dedicated their life to the practice of Yoga through years of effort. Patanjali says in verse 1.26 of the Yoga sutras that before a person begins the practice of Yoga, they must find a Guru who has realized God. He goes on to suggest that a person who has not yet found their Guru can attract the Guru to them by practicing the mantra, “om.” Though all the texts on Yoga emphasize the necessity of a living Guru, certain modern schools of Yoga claim that realization is possible without a Guru. These schools of thought are founded on egoism and they expose a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of the soul and maya. The Lord reveals himself to sincere seekers through the efforts of the enlightened masters, yet for those who are too egotistical to bow at the feet of a master, realization waits until the soul can mature through the self-centered delusion that the ego can free itself from suffering. It is not always easy to work with a master, because the presence of the master will bring up unresolved karmas and emotions for the seeker to process. But without the blessing of a master, the process of Yoga cannot really begin. It is hard to understand the grace of a master for those who have not experienced it. Hidden doors are opened in the presence of the Guru and things that were not possible despite the best efforts of the seeker become effortless. Should any serious student of Yoga seek a master? Yes. Absolutely. Anyone who is sincere in their practice must admit that grace comes from beyond the veil of maya and the binding force of the ego. There are numerous traditional Gurus teaching various forms of Yoga, and many are traveling the world each year. It is not necessary to go to India to find one’s master. It is only necessary to prepare oneself and to attune oneself to the energy of their master. If a person has not yet found their Guru, they can prepare themselves by practicing the Yamas and Niyamas and follow the traditional suggestion of Patanjali. They can chant “om” and pray to Lord Ganesh, who is said to be embodied by the mantra om to prepare them for their Guru. When a person attempts the practice of Yoga without the guidance of a Guru, they are not only devaluing themselves and their own practice, but also the system of Yoga. When seeking to learn a skill like playing piano, people generally seek an accomplished teacher. But it is relatively easy to learn to play a piano concerto. Most good students could do so within a few years of practice. Realizing the Divine Self is quite difficult, and requires many years of disciplined effort. It is the highest accomplishment possible for embodied souls and the ultimate purpose of human incarnation. People should not take the practice lightly nor should they belittle it by acting as if they do not require the assistance of a qualified teacher.
Yogis traditional kept few personal possessions, but all or most of these would be considered essential. Can you identify them? Do you know the purpose and significance of each? Do you use any in your practice? These are 1) gurupaadukaas, 2) kamandalu, 3) yogadanda, 4) aasana, 5) rudraakshamaalaa, 6) vibhuuti, 7) tulasiidalam, 8) kaupiinam, and 9) bhikshaabhaandam.
1) Guru Padukas (Holy Sandals of the Master)
According to all the traditional texts on Yoga, before a person can begin a practice of Yoga, they must receive the blessings of a realized Guru. It is the nature of the ahamkara (ego) to bind itself and to remain bound, and the nature of the realized master to stimulate awakening in the disciple. Wooden padukas are the traditional footwear of Yogis. The wood protects the feet not only from physical objects which would injure the feet, but also from all sorts of impurities and negative energies on the ground. This style of foot wear is anything but comfortable, and it requires the utmost mindfulness to constantly clutch with the toes. Having worn only wooden padukas for several years. I can attest that it is an awkward exercise in mindfulness to wear them, with injury the result for a momentary lapse of attention (especially on stairs). I was amazed to see one of my masters who is well into his 70's walking in padukas in an extremely graceful way as if he was floating. Guru padukas are the holy sandals of the Guru. They are a symbol of the master. Whenever the student sees the teacher, they rush forward to receive blessings by bowing and touching the holy feet of the teacher. Yoga understands that much energy leaves the body through the feet and that powerful energy to stimulate our process of awakening imbues the seeker who makes themselves humble before a master. When encountering the footwear of the master, the disciple will bow and seek blessings, because even the chappals are blessed by the contact with the master's holy feet. When the disciple can not be in the physical presence of the master, a small pair of padukas is kept for worship. This helps maintain mindfulness on the blessing of the Guru's grace, without which no progress wold be possible on the path of Yoga. This is why we are listing gurupadukas as the foremost prop for any yogi.
2) Kamandalu (Water Pot)
Kamandalu is a water pot, often with a handle at the top and a spout. Traditionally used by Yogis for carrying water for drinking and for offering in prayers. Many Yogis pour morning tarpana oblations to the Sun from the sacred kamandalu. Water is a must in every puja ceremony, and most rituals for purification, like punyahavachanam, rely heavily on the use of pure water. The kamandalu has become not only the symbol of a the simple, austere, self-sufficient life of a Yogi, but also a symbol of spiritual purity which comes to the Yogis who maintain an austere existence, remaining aloof from society, abstaining from material pleasures and comforts, and remaining absorbed in their quest for realization. The kamandalu has become a symbol of the Yogi's absorption in their quest for God, and of ascetic aspects of God like Shiva. The kamandalu is also a symbol of the lifegiving powers of water and of amrita (the nectar of immortality). As such, it is associated with deities who relate to water like Varuna and Saraswati.
3) Yoga Danda / Japa Danda (Stick for Mantra Japam)
A Yoga Danda is a stick, usually made from wood, constructed with a support at one end, designed for use in mantra japa. The Yoga danda enables long hours of mantra repetition, counting the mantras recited with a japamala, so that the mala can be held without touching impurities on the ground. Items used in the practice of Yoga are regarded as sacred and are always treated with the utmost respect. This includes not touching them mindlessly, not moving them around hastily or carelessly, not touching them with the feet or touching them to impure objects like dirt or waste, not allowing them to touch the ground, and not allowing them to be seen casually by people who lack reverence and respect for their sacred nature. Yogis often use the Yoga danda in conjunction with a cloth to cover the japamala from drishti (a gaze from onlookers which transfers negative energy). Japa is possibly the most important of the higher practices of Yoga. It is different than affirmation, as it uses sacred Sanskrit sounds to open inner channels and to carry consciousness transcendent states of awareness. It is different also from kirtan or bhajana, where mantras are sung in musical ways, which is more of a practice of bhakti Yoga. The practices of bhakti Yoga help to instill a love of the Divine which helps later to give the aspirant the faith and courage to persist in the higher practices of Yoga. Japa is repetitive and very dull. It is a meditation.
The straightness of the Yoga danda is a symbol of the stillness and steadiness of focus required for japa to bestow its effects. It is a support to the Yogi in their countless hours of practice. Through such practice, the Yoga danda is endowed with mystical powers as it vibrates potently with the power of the mantra. Contact with or sight of such a sacred object is capable of healing diseases, answering questions, and inducing higher states of consciousness.
The Yoga Danda is different from the Brahma danda carried by brahmacharis (those who have taken vows of celibacy) including sannyasins. This staff is more of a walking stick designed to support such wandering ascetics in their travel from place to place. It is a symbol of the central channel of awakening within the spine, the sushumna nadi, and a symbol of their independence and self-sufficiency.
4) Asana (Seat / Meditation Mat)
The asana is considered an indispensable prop for traditional Yoga practice. People wrongly think that asana means various postures, but asana means to sit, or in this case a seat for sitting on for meditation and mantrajapa. The Yoga sutras of Patanjali say only "Sit in a comfortable posture" in reference to asana and does not mention a single pose. Most of the other older texts on Yoga list only a small handful of poses, which are mainly sitting poses for meditation. It was not until the 20th century when modern Indians, who were not Yogis, began to add stretching poses of modern aerobics to the practice of Yoga in an effort to make the esoteric practice of the mystics more widely applicable to the general public.
The importance of an asana, or a seat for practice is based in mystical knowledge of transfer of energy. Asanas made of certain, pure substances help to prevent the loss of spiritual energy through the legs and feet as they come in contact with the ground, and they help to create a protective barrier from negative energies which would otherwise be transferred from the ground and hinder the Yogi's meditation. Suitable substances for construction of an asana are said to be wood, cotton, wool, silk, darbha grass, or animals skins. Animal skins should be tanned from animals that have died of natural, peaceful causes, and the best are said to be from a tiger, lion, deer, or antelope. It is possible for an asana to be made of various layers of all these substances. Obviously, wool, silk, cotton, or animal hide is the easiest to travel with for wandering Yogis and therefor the most common. Wooden and dharbha asanas are more common in Temples and homes for puja ceremonies.
There are various yantras drawn on asanas along with specific mantras for purification which are used to purify and empower the asana for use. As an asana is used repeatedly for sadhana, spiritual energy builds and it helps to empower one's practice. Its use may seem excessive to novice practitioners of Yoga, but for the mystical Yogi attuned to the subtle energies around and aware of their effects on consciousness the asana is an invaluable tool to help empower the practice of Yoga.
5) Rudraksha Mala (Strands of Sacred Rudraksha Seeds)
Rudraksha mala is worn by nearly all Yogis. Rudrakshas are the sacred seeds of the bright blue fruit of the Rudraksha tree, Elaeocarpus ganitrus, native to the foothills of the Himalayas in India and Nepal. They are very sacred to Hindus and many Buddhists for their sacred nature and effect on consciousness. Contact with rudrakshas is said to calm the mind, increase spiritual awareness, and lower blood pressure. The beads are used to make japamalas for mantra practice and kanthamalas for wearing. Wearing rudrakshas is said to have a protective energy and helps keep a person current facing their karmas. Rudrakshas open a channel to inner realms to deepen meditation and help a person to connect with the devas. Yogis wear rudrakshas at all times to aid in their practice and to help avert negative energies and keep them connected with the devas. It is said that a person who wears rudrakshas at the time of death will be benefitted to have their astral body projected to the higher astral realms and not suffer from being caught in the hellish lower astral realms after death. Rudrakshas have lines along them called mukhis or faces. Five mukhis is most common. Each mukhi rudraksha 1-12 is said by the scriptures to have specific energies and abilities relating to various Planets in Vedic astrology and capable of helping with specific problems. Some like the one mukhi rudraksha are very rare and sell for a great deal of money. Because of this, it is common to encounter fake rudrakshas. For general use, the 5 mukhi rudrkasha is best.
The Rudrakshajabala Upanishat says:
"Wearing rudraksha removes the sins committed in day and night. Seeing it produces 100 thousand benefits, and touching it produces 10 million. Wearing it produces a billion benefits, and wearing and counting mantras on the beads produces 100 billion benefits."
6) Vibhuti / Bhasma (Holy Ash)
Vibhuti or Bhasma is the sacred white ash which is very dear to yogis and sadhus. The ash, 'bhasma' is made in a proscribed method, building a fire using dried cow dung and darbha grass. Offerings are made into the fire of ghee and sesame seeds to empower the sacred ash with specific mantras. Pure white ash is then collected and powdered finely and sometimes scented for use. The sacred ash empowered in this way is known as vibhuti, or 'powerful.' Vibhuti is applied as a part of the traditional tilakam, or sectarian markings on the forehead, arms and chest of Shaivas, Shaktas and Smartas along with specific mantras, and the othodox never leave home without wearing it. If vibhuti prepared in this way is unavailable, the shastras allow the use of any ash from a sacred fire where offerings are made regularly. The vamamarga shastras also allow the use of ash from cremation grounds, and many naga and aghori sadhus use this. Vibhuti is most commonly applied in three vertical lines called, tirpundra. According to Shaiva philosophy, these lines represent the burning away of the three pashas, or 'bonds of the embodied soul.' These are anava, 'the false sense of being limitted;' karma, 'action arising from this delusion;' and maya, 'the phenomenal world which arises due to action.'
Vibhuti has mystical powers to open a channel to the inner realms. It casts an emanation of astral light around the wearer through which the Devas can see into the physical realm. Vibhuti has a purifying effect upon consciousness, keeping a person current with their karmas, and it has a protective effect. Wearing vibhuti protects from all sorts of negative energies from people and places one goes and actually can help to protect from physical dangers as well. When performing the pancha agni sadhana, the austerity of sitting in fire, Yogis first place vibhuti on the body to protect from physical burning. When Yogis pierce the tonque and skin with metal spikes as a part of traditional kavadi offerings to Lord Murugan, they place vibhuti on the skin before inserting the metal spike to reduce bleeding, infection, and other forms of lasting damage to the body.
Vibhuti has such a strong purifying effect that if water is not available, "agneya snanam" is considered permissible, which is to bath using holy ash. It is a very powerful practice of purification, in fact many times more powerful than a regular water bath to apply vibhuti all over the body head or toe. Vibhuti is always offered to Lord Shiva, and is commonly offered as prasad (a blessed sacrament) at Shiva temples. Small amounts are eaten for healing from serious diseases.
The Skanda Purana says that if a person performs any act of worship of the Lord while wearing bhasma, it will have great effects to purify that person and uplift them toward spirituality, even if they lack faith and merely do the outer actions of worship. This is the sacred power of vibhuti.
7) Tulasi Dalam (Holy Basil Leaf)
Tulasidalam - Tulsi or Holy Basil leaf is very sacred to the Vaishnavas who worship the plant as a Goddess incarnate. Unlike most other substances on earth which are said to require prana pratishtha rituals to open channels to the inner realms before they are considered fit for worship, Tulasi is said to occur naturally with those channels fully open. Offered in every Vaishnava puja, tulasi is considered an essential substance for prayer. Malas are made for wearing and japa out of beads carved from the sacred wood. The tulasi plant is also a veritable medicine chest. The fragrant leaves are capable of helping to cure any dis-ease condition a Yogi may experience. They even have the capacity to bring the dead back to life, which is why they are a compulsory offering in every Hindu funeral ceremony. Tulasi leaves are offered to ensure it is the Lord's will for the soul to depart before funeral pyres are ignited. Having sacred tulasi leaves nearby means for wandering yogis that the cure to any potential dis-ease condition is nearby. Living a self imposed transitory life of poverty and austerity means that medicines are not always available to a yogi. The great Yogis have revealed simple practices for self-healing for such wandering ascetics. Consuming tulasi daily not only uplifts a person's awareness and calms the mind for meditation, but it also boosts ojas (immunity) to help prevent dis-ease. Like rudrakshas, tulasi has the capacity to attract divine beings and to keep a person current processing their karmas. With the proper knowledge, tulasi can be used to treat any health concern, but few know of the mystical healing uses of tulasi to treat various diseases. The yogis have passed this information down through the generations. This is very similar to the more well known practice of shivambu, involving drinking one's own urine for health and using urine to treat various diseases. These practices are especially important for yogis since they are often exposed to harsh environmental conditions living outside and often go without food and water for long periods of time. Such yogis sometimes eat several peppercorns each day when food is not available to encourage the body to recycle the nutrients of the food they have digested already. The wandering yogi may not always be able to take proper care of the body, or to afford needed medications, but it is always possible to carry a little tulasi or to produce a little urine. Tulasi is a great aid in practice and a literal lifesaver for the yogis subjected to harsh conditions in order to press forward in their sadhana.
Tulasi Gayatri Mantram
Tulasi-devyai ca vidmahe viShNu-priyaayai ca dheemahi
tanno vrindaah pracodayaat
"May we know that Goddess Tulasi and meditate on the beloved of Lord Vishnu
May that Tulasi, with a cluster of flowers, bestowing virtue and strength, impel us."
8) Kaupina (Loincloth)
The simple Kaupina is the basic traditional garment of Yogis, Ascetics, and Brahmacharis. Before the modern fashion trends of commercialized Yoga, this simple loincloth was a symbol of humbleness, austerity, and renunciation for Yogis. This is vastly different from modern stylish Yoga garb which are designed to bring attention to the physical body, objectify women, and put money in the pockets of an ever-growing 80 billion dollar global industry taking advantage of the materialistic nature of humanity by commodifying the once spiritual practice of Yoga. Unlike the many expensive Yoga fashions peddled by the Yoga companies, the kaupina is the humblest of garments, worn in India by the impoverished out of necessity and by Yogis and renunciates as spiritual austerity. A kaupina can be easily made at home from plain cloth. It is a loincloth constructed of a string or piece of cloth which is tied around the waist. To this a piece of cloth is attached which is secured firmly between the legs by pulling it through the string itself (see illustration below). Though some ascetic Yogis have worn nothing more than the kaupina as act of extreme austerity, it is today most commonly worn under the tradition veshti or other clothing by Yogis and brahmacharis. The design of the kaupina itself is a great aid in the practice of brahmacharya (celibacy). The kaupina places gentle pressure around the genitals, stimulating marma points which help to subjugate the sexual urge and activate the higher chakras. For men in particular, the kaupina is a great aid in the practice of brahmacharya because it makes it very painful if arousal occurs. Though it is more common for men to wear kaupina, it is useful and acceptable for women to wear it also. Women have traditionally worn kaupina during their monthly cycle and its design is supportive to the practice of bramacharya for women also. It can be worn under saree or other garments. Blessed with mantras when wearing, the kaupina is not only a symbol of renunciation of materialism which is a great obstacle in the path of Yoga, but a support and constant reminder of the inner quest of the Yogi.
This garment is the fundamental article of clothing of the Yoga practitioner and a potent symbol of their renunciation. The scriptures extol the greatness of the lowly kaupina and many deities like Shiva, Hanuman and Palani Murugan have been depicted wearing it. Modern Sages like Ramana Maharishi and Nityananda of Ganeshpuri are most often seen wearing only kaupina.
Adi Shankaracharya's "Kaupina Panchakam" says:
"Always contented in the joy of ones own self
Who is peaceful by curbing the desires of his senses
Who is immersed day and night in the bliss of Brahman
The man with just the loincloth is indeed the lucky one."
9) Bhikshaa Bhaandam (Begging Bowl)
The Bhikshaa bhaandha or begging bowl is the universal symbol of Yogis and Sadhus in India. Made from wood, earthenware, or metal, the begging bowl is a necessity for the practice of Yoga. Followers of the lefthanded path like the Nagas and Aghoris often use human skulls as begging bowls to remind them of the impermanence of life. There are few things more humbling than having to beg for ones livelihood. Many times alms are refused and the beggar insulted. Traditionally, Yogis and Sadhus do not remain in one place, but roam from town to town, never remaining in one location for longer than three days at a time to avoid developing attachments. Traditionally, they are permitted by tradition to knock on three doors with their begging bowl each day asking for food. If food is denied three times, they fast that day.
This practice, is one which is practical in the East where Yogis are revered as Holy people, and it is understood that their intense dedication and sadhana has a stabilizing effect on society and human consciousness. People rush forward to give bhiksha or alms to Yogis, because they know that it opens a channel for them and their families to have their karmas and troubles healed by the punyam (the merit) accrued from the many austerities practiced by the Yogi. Householders in the East understand that it is their spiritual duty to give food, and clothing, and money to support the mission of dedicated spiritual seekers.
Traditionally, the Yogi does not just receive bhiksha, but must give karmakanda in return. Karmakanda in this context means the blessing given by a Holy person to those benefactors who sponsor the efforts of the holy person by giving alms. Though people may not have the karma to experience healing or realization on account of their own merits, the act of giving bhiksha opens an energetic channel to the holy person enabling that mystic access to the subtle bodies where a persons karmas are held and carried from life to life. In the highest sense, the Yogi's duty upon receiving bhiksha is to aid in working out the karmas which bind and hinder those who have given alms. In certain cases, there will be no outer action to symbolize this inner work which the Yogi is duty bound to complete. In other cases, the Yogi will demonstrate outwardly the karmakanda by either providing spiritual teachings, pooja services or other spiritual services. Free from attachments, the earlier Yogis wandered place to place with little more than the sacred bhiksha bhanda as an implement signifying faith in the Lord's undying support. Their hearts and minds are open like the empty bowl to whatever the Lord brings into their path, and like the empty bowl which can be filled with food by generous yajamanas, their being is like a blank slate for the grace of God to flow through. Few in the West understand the seriousness of the practice of the Yogis in the East nor do they see it as their duty to support the efforts of such spiritual seekers. People often lack compassion and generosity.
Many are the stories of God coming to a person's home in the form of a beggar to test people's spirit of generosity. It is true that those who give, earn the karma to receive; and that those who deny any person in need, will themselves be denied in the future when they find themselves most in need. We must give to receive, which is a secret that is understood well in the East. For people in the West, the focus is on materialism and material comforts are abundant, but the bhiksha bhanda is empty and our hearts and minds are lacking spiritual bliss and tranquility. In order to bring back this ancient and beneficial tradition of bhiksha / karmakanda, we must start by giving generously to all in need. The enlightened masters are taking birth in the East, because there the system supports their existence and there the people are open to their spiritual assistance. To attract such souls back to the West, we must learn to look at all beggars as God himself asking for us to sacrifice a little and give of the abundance we enjoy. We must begin again to see it as our duty to donate generously to all spiritual institutions and seekers.
There us a lot of inaccurate information being circulated online in the West about the traditional Ayurvedic practice of Abhyanga, so we wanted to do a post to provide a traditional Ayurvedic perspective of the practice of the healing practice.
Pronounced somewhat like abh-yanga; not abi-yan-ga as it commonly mispronounced in the West. "A" is pronounced like "u" in the word cup. The word has three syllables and rhymes with the Sanskrit word ashtanga. Abhyanga is the name for oil massage in Ayurveda. It is recommended as a part of a person's daily self-care regimen along with bathing, brushing the teeth, exercise, and meditation. It can be practiced at home or by an Ayurvedic doctor as a part of other Ayurvedic treatments. As a part of Ayurvedic treatments, a much greater quantity of oil is used.
What Oils to Use
Oils recommended by Ayurveda are dosha specific base oils or specially prepared Ayurvedic herbal oils called tailams. The most commonly recommended base oils for the three doshas are sesame oil for vata, coconut oil for pitta, and mustard oil for kapha. A person's doshic balance may be discerned through pulse diagnosis by a qualified Ayurvedic doctor (online dosha tests are quite unreliable). Ayurvedic herbal oils are prepared by well-trained pharmacists, who in India receive over 1000 hours of formal training in the subject of Ayurvedic pharmacology. Base oils (usually sesame oil) are cooked for days along with specially prepared decoctions, herbal juices, herbal pastes and other ingredients according to complex recipes recorded in the Ayurvedic scriptures and often contain greater than 50 ingredients. These oils are somewhat similar to Western herbal infused oils, but they incorporate a much greater quantity of herbs and are hundreds of times more potent. Ayurveda does not tend to recommend essential oils for general use as they are irritating to the skin and agitating to the mind and have a tendency to aggravate both vata and pitta dosha, irrespective of the qualities of the herbs used to distill the oils, because essential oils isolate only the most fragrant and volatile portion of an herb. Many Western companies marketing "Ayurvedic" products have begun to add essential oils to formulas to meet Western expectations, but this is not in line with the traditional recommendations of Ayurveda.
For at home abhyanga, the recommended amount of oil would be about 1/4th cup to 1/2 cup according to dosha. The most oil is required for vata and the least for kapha. Potent Ayurvedic herbal oils are most often mixed into base oils at a suggested ratio of around 1 part herbal oil to about 5 parts base oil. Specific herbal oils may be used undiluted for the treatment of certain conditions. For daily use for healthy people, it is generally recommended that herbal oils be diluted in a base oil. Before application, the oils should be heated either over a flame or by placing oils in a container in hot water. The temperature of the oil should be different for the three doshas. Oil should be hottest for kapha, very warm for vata, and slightly warmer than body temperature for pitta. Heating the oil helps to ensure that it can be absorbed through the skin to nourish the muscles, tissues, organs and bones. Then the oils is applied all over the head, face and body and rubbed into the skin with rhythmic motions. Pressure should be greater and movements quicker for kapha, with moderate pressure and speed for pitta, and gentle pressure and slow speed for vata. Movements should incorporate long straight strokes along the limbs and back, with circular motions around the joints and belly. Clockwise motions will have a nourishing effect, whereas counter clockwise motions will have a cleansing effect. Motions from the feet upward will have an invigorating effect, whereas motions from the head downward will be grounding. Movements from the extremities toward the heart will be strengthening to the muscles and tissues, whereas motions from the heart toward the extremities will be purifying. The area around the heart is generally bypassed during abhyanga as oil is said to hurt the heart. Special attention is given to the feet which is called padabhyanga and the face and head which is called shiro abhyanga. Rubbing oil into the soles of the feet and the crown of the head is said to have a very calming and grounding effect and to ease stress and promote sound sleep. The process of applying oil should take somewhere between 15 and 30 minutes.
After abhyanga, it is important to take a warm shower to rinse away excess oil and to promote sweating. Sweating helps to release toxins in the skin and blood which otherwise would be trapped in by the oil. Traditionally soap is not used to rinse away excess oil, but herbal dusting powders. These powders often contain grain flours along with herbal powders which have a tendency to clog Western plumbing. In the West, it may be advisable to use soap instead to remove excess oil. It is recommended by Ayurveda to leave a fair amount of oil on the body which protects from wind, sun and extremes of temperature. This does shorten the life of clothing and linens but promotes longevity.
The benefits of abhyanga performed in this way are to increase strength and immunity; soften the skin and to help remove wrinkles and blemishes, ease stress, decrease the effects of aging, promote sound sleep, nourish the organs and tissues, facilitate proper elimination of waste and toxins, improve vision, stimulate circulation, ease pain in the body, and ease mental tension.
Ahyanga is contraindicated if a person has a cold or fever or is is acutely ill, over growths or rashes or cuts (without advise of an Ayurvedic doctor), when there is indigestion or ama (toxic accumulation), during menstruation or pregnancy, and during certain lunar phases. The subject is vast and it is difficult to cover its many intricacies in a brief writing. We have taught workshops on performing at home abhyanga for health in the past.
Modern Market Apples and Patents
There are a few genetically modified and patented apples that have recently come onto the market. They are known as "Arctic" apples, and in addition to "Arctic Golden," "Arctic Granny", and "Arctic Fuji" which are now available for sale, other varieties are planned to be sold in the near future. Despite approval by the USDA which states these apples are safe to consume, we do not know the long term health effects or dangers of these or other GMO fruits and vegetables. These GMO's along with the conventionally hybridized but patented "Opal apple" are valued by marketers for their resistance to bruising and browning. Resistance to browning gives sellers more time to be able to profit from the fruits. These and many other popular supermarket varieties of apple have not been grown for their health benefits, nor for their good taste, but for qualities that improve marketability. The apples we see today are not the most flavorful, but have been selected instead for qualities like storing and traveling well, long shelf life, large well-formed, blemish-free fruits, quick growth, resistance to specific pests, and abundant harvests. Here is a link for an article providing more info about these modern varieties which are taking the market by storm.
Only a small handful of the many thousands of varieties of apples in existence are widely available today on the US market, and the heirloom varieties are quickly disappearing. The value of biodiversity is being underestimated in favor of profit yields by the big producers. This creates a great potential for disease to destroy food crops. These patented varieties pose an even bigger threat because they cannot be grafted and grown at home by the public, but only by specific farms that who hold the patent or pay the patent holder for growing rights. This discourages growing at homes and small farms and it discourages the allowance of natural genetic variations which have led in the past to many valuable and disease-resistant varieties. Today, though there are many Opal apples sold in markets throughout the US, there is only one 6,000 acre farm in America that holds the legal right to grow these apples. It is extremely important now that we work to save the heirloom varieties before they are lost forever.
Historic Apple Varieties
The historic apple varieties are not always the prettiest. They are often small, oddly-shaped, with blemishes, and russeting. But they have a wide range of flavors and uses which are lacking in the modern apple varieties. Many heirloom apples were prized in earlier times for specific uses; some for eating fresh, others for making pies and desserts, others for apple sauce, some for apple butter, and many for producing apple cider or cider vinegar. Some apples produced fruit very early in the season and others produced fruit late which could be stored throughout the winter to extend the harvest. They came in an array of colors ranging from almost white to nearly black; yellow, brown, red, orange, pink, and green. Their flavor ranged from cloyingly sweet to very tart, to bitter, astringent, spicy, fragrant, and pungent. A great example of a uniquely valuable apple would be the small unnamed variety we have been working to save from a friend's farmhouse in Bath County for the past few years. This apple has been prized for generations by the locals in the town of Hot Springs for its superlative qualities for making apple butter. The old tree is likely a chance seedling, and may be the only specimen in existence. The old tree is nearing the end of its life cycle and so we have been working to graft it to save its unique genetics for future generations.
We encourage others to help save the old, rare apple varieties by growing their own fruit at home like previous generations. Many varieties are much more flavorful than modern supermarket apples, but they are virtually unknown today. The depth of flavor is unfathomable to those who have only tasted modern varieties. Many varieties taste more like apple candy than they do a "red delicious." Several important historic varieties in Virginia that are packed with flavor are "Winesap," "Esopus Spitzenburg," "Ashmede's Kernel," and "Gold Rush" (the parent of Golden Delicious). One flavorful apple stands out in central Virginia for its historic popularity. The "Newton Pippin," from New York grew and sold so well here, it is known in Virginia as the "Albemarle Pippin" for the county where it was grown.
In addition to our work to save several old apple varieties, we have been growing and promoting the heirloom varieties. We planted around 54 distinct historic varieties in the orchard at our last farm and we have brought many smaller saplings with us to the new farm. We have helped others to establish small home orchards of heirloom fruit trees. We are excited to have found at the new farm two older non-producing apple trees. With a little love, we should be able to get them producing next year. We are excited to see what rare gems we may have growing here. For the health of the people and the environment, we should promote the older, more natural varieties of food which were grown for their taste and health benefits rather than for their profitability. Preserving biodiversity helps nature to thrive. We should support local growers whenever possible. Small, ethical, local farmers have difficulty to compete with the factory operations using migrant labor and destroying the environment. Many small farms are disappearing today, because they simply cannot compete. When the longtime owner of a major local farm in Hanover County died recently, his children decided it was too little profit and too much work to maintain the farm and they sold the land. It is not always cheaper to seek out locally grown foods sources, but in the long run it does save us money. It is much cheaper than the medical bills incurred from eating unhealthy foods and it saves us the devastating expenses of natural disasters caused by the unsound and unethical practices of factory farming.
We plan to compile a list of growers selling historic apples in the future, but for now more information about historic varieties and saplings for sale can be found at these two sources we know and trust:
Century Farm Orchard
Vintage Virginia Apples
Yoga has recently gained great popularity in the West, but along with this have come many instances of misappropriation of the ancient Hindu spiritual practice. The single greatest example of this is arguably the multi-million dollar industry of Western "Yoga apparel." This article shares my perspective about this as a Hindu priest and teacher of traditional Yoga. For me Yoga is not a fashion or an exercise. It is an integral part of my spiritual practice which I regard as sacred. For me, and over a billion Hindus world wide, Yoga is a part of our Religion and it is a mystical practice revealed by our Sages for connecting with the Divine. The contents of this article draw from the spiritual tradition of my Guru and may or may not reflect the thoughts or opinions of other sects or denominations of Hinduism. Though I can not speak for other Hindus, I personally am very happy to see Yoga becoming so popular in the West, but I am concerned that it is changing as it is integrated into Western culture in ways that diminish the potency of the spiritual practice and which are disrespectful and harmful to the Hindu culture which brought Yoga to the world. Especially in the West, Hindus face a certain amount of discrimination and abuse as a minority group. The misappropriation of Yoga contributes to a misunderstanding of Hinduism which is in part responsible for discrimination against Hindu people. I feel it is important as Yoga spreads in the West and inevitably changes its form to suit Western culture, that Western Yoga practitioners learn about the cultural roots and the traditional practices of Yoga so that it is possible to practice Yoga in a way that honors the Indian people and culture which gave birth to the practice.
Undoubtedly, one of the biggest trends in fashion in America today are so-called “Yoga pants.” But have the many people who wear them ever paused to consider if these garments have anything to do with Yoga? As a teacher of traditional Yoga, I can hardly imagine any article of clothing less suitable for the practice of Yoga. In India, where Yoga originated, there is not a multi-million dollar industry around the sale of Yoga attire. People simply wear what clothes they have to practice Yoga. Yet if recommendations for clothing are given in Yoga classes, Indian teachers traditionally suggest to favor comfortable, loose-fitting, light-colored, modest clothing. Yoga practice, pranayama, and meditation encourage the deepening of prana (breath / energy / life-force). As Yoga practice deepens, the pranas deepen and spread into the subtle channels and circulate more completely throughout the body. This process is obstructed by tight, constrictive clothing. Many Yoga postures require flexibility. But flexibility is also hindered by tight clothing, no matter how elastic the fabric. A much more ideal suggestion for Westerners practicing Yoga would be loose, comfortable, white-colored sweatpants.
Yoga is a traditionally a silent and introspective practice. “Yoga pants” are a distraction from the inward process of Yoga. Before attempting meditation, Yoga recommends practices of pratyahara (withdrawing the senses from the body and turning them within). Form-fitting apparel is extremely revealing. It encourages oneself and others to focus outwardly on the form of the physical body. But the aim of Yoga is to redirecting awareness from the body and mind, toward the subtle perception of the Soul, which is at one with all of creation. Gradually, practitioners of Yoga learn in meditation to limit awareness of the senses of the body and thoughts and feeling in the mind as awareness expands to experience of the Divinity latent in all things. One common obstacle to this process in public Yoga classes is the natural competitive nature of the mind. Revealing clothing in particular draws awareness to the physical body and encourages students’ tendencies to compare themselves with others, which is a great hindrance to the inner practice of Yoga.
Revealing clothing are also inappropriate for Yoga practice because they disregard the Yamas and Niyamas, and Brahmacharya (celibacy for the unmarried or marital fidelity) and Hri (modesty) in particular. Traditional Yoga emphasizes the necessity of practicing certain Yamas (restraints) and Niyamas (observances) before postures, breathing exercises, meditations, or any other techniques of Yoga be attempted. Without these preliminary disciplines, it is said that the practice of Yoga will confer negligible benefits. Many Westerners now view Yoga as a mere physical exercise, which strengthens and tones the body and calms the mind. They have little to no awareness of the traditional application of Yoga, or the true potential of the practice. Yet they take certain aspects of the practice which appeal to their Western sensibilities, removed from their original context, to be applied toward the desires of their egos, though the aim of traditional Yoga is to subjugate egoism. This is disrespectful to the more than 1 billion Hindus, for whom Yoga is an integral part of their spiritual tradition, whether they practice Yoga or not.
Much of Western culture seems to advocate admiration of the opposite sex, flirting, dating, and seeking multiple sexual partners in one’s lifetime. Traditional Yoga and Hinduism advise against these practices, advocating the ideals of abstinence for the unmarried or undivided focus of one’s sexual energy upon one partner through the sacred institution of marriage. Yoga is a profoundly mystical practice which teaches that energy which would otherwise feed a person’s spiritual practice can be dissipated through excessive sexual activity or many sexual relationships. When a sensual connection is made with another person, the auras of the couple are connected by an energetic cord which connects the karmas of the couple and through which thoughts, feelings, and energies are sent to one another. Such cords and the energies they facilitate the exchange of are typically very difficult to remove for many years after the physical encounter. One partner may wake up in the morning feeling angry for no apparent reason, until they realize they are noticing the feelings of their past partner, though that partner may be distant. These type of relationships create many karmic bonds also. A person becomes entangled in the karmas of each partner and this can create barriers to health, happiness, and prosperity. A person will tend to become affected by the astrology of each person they open an energetic channel to through physical intimacy. This situation often has detrimental results. Such relationships also tend to detract from the intimate connection which can be achieved in a marriage to one partner. Yoga practices are designed to help release karma and to lessen the thoughts and feelings that burden the mind. Such sensual encounters open a person to many other attachments, thoughts and feelings which must be sorted out through additional practice, possibly in future lifetimes. Marriage on the other hand tends to assist in the spiritual practice of the couple, because both partners are challenged to grow by the difficulties of living together. As they compromise to make the relationship work, true spiritual love deepens, and the karmas of each partner are released.
To understand how this relates to “Yoga pants,” we must examine the practice of Hri, or modesty, which is also considered one of the fundamental practices of Yoga. Hri can mean being humble and moderate in the estimation of one’s abilities. It also means dressing in unrevealing clothing and carrying oneself in a manner to avoid the attraction of sexual attention. Men and women in Western society often interact through the lower chakras. Yoga discourages these needless physical and energetic bonds which hinder the process of Yoga. When a person looks at the body of another with desire, they send energy to the aura which can lead to blockages in the flow of prana capable of causing physical and mental health problems. This energetic exchange is known as drishti in Sanskrit, and it implies harmful energies sent to another through glance along with negative emotions (like anger or desire).
People in the West are not very aware of subtle energies or the effect they have on them. People in India meditate much more often and have gained more subtle awareness about such things, and people in India interact differently. Men and women traditionally limit interaction with members of the opposite sex to what is absolutely necessary. They do not extend conversations; do not look at one another in the eyes; and they never touch. Unmarried men and women would certainly never be alone with one another. These traditions may seem prudish to Westerners, but they help protect young people from needless energetic and karmic bonds with others and they help to ensure that deep bonds are possible which lead to lasting marriages. They also ensure that people in search of an experience of the infinite do not wind up binding their consciousness in myriad ways to the transient physical body.
It is traditional in India for men and women to wear loose-fitting clothing which covers the legs to the ankles. This modest dress is required especially in Temples, Ashrams, and Yoga school in India. Form-fitting or revealing clothing like “Yoga pants” are absolutely prohibited in these sacred places. “Yoga pants” are perhaps the most revealing article of clothing commonly worn in the West, and currently many American schools have banned “Yoga pants” and certain locales have even proposed banning the wearing of “Yoga pants” in public. They tend to encourage men and women to think sexual thoughts, because they are very revealing of the genitalia. Some may try to deny this, but the American Society for Aesthetic Surgery has reported a dramatic recent increase in the number of women receiving labiaplasty, which is linked to a desire to look a certain way when wearing “Yoga pants." Such excessively revealing clothing necessarily leads to sexual thoughts and the exchange of sexual energy. When a person wears “Yoga pants” in the presence of other people, this forces those people to see their genitalia, and this certainly tends to cause other people to think about them and interact with them in a sexual way. It is said that “sex sells,” and the media is inundated with sexual images and suggestions. As a result, nearly every interpersonal exchange in the West is charged with some amount of sexual energy, and “Yoga pants” tend to increase this trend. Perhaps the most accomplished Yogis could look at the human genitalia without having sexual thoughts or being aroused, but it is simply not realistic to expect this level of self-control of every practitioner of Yoga, and certainly not of common people on the streets. Until the instinctive nature of the mind and body has been transmuted through a disciplined and dedicated practice of Yoga, such garments present a needless distraction and obstacle to practice.
It is not necessary for interactions between men and women to be so sexualized. It is quite common for men and women in the West to interact with one another through the lower chakras which resonate with lust and desire. Many relationships in the West are based upon lust without regard for the other person involved. It is possible also for people to connect with true love, with compassion, forethought, and sensitivity to the needs and desires of another. Yoga encourages people to connect through the higher chakras, which adore every other person with equal love and respect and which do not harbor selfish expectations or desires. Yoga philosophy does not see anything wrong with sexuality. Its recommendations have been given by the great Yogis without judgement for the purpose of reducing human suffering and helping to lead human consciousness away from the gross material realm and toward the subtler planes of consciousness within.
If people truly want to wear “Yoga pants,” I feel they should do so with awareness of the attention it attracts to them. I would ask such people to please not feel slighted if I decline to shower them with such attention. I am striving humbly to interact with people from a place of selfless service, love, respect, and acceptance; and to strive to reserve my lust and desire for my Divine Beloved. This is simply the way I choose to conduct myself, which is my right. I do not ask you to understand, approve of or to assist with my practice. But I do what pleases me, even as you do. I have experienced greater bliss in the awareness of the Divine which permeates all things in the Universe than I have found in any limited or temporary pleasure in this world. As a practitioner of Yoga, I strive each day to dedicate myself more and more each day to the vision of the Divine Light which shines in all things, and I honor the tradition of Yoga which has enabled my experience of this by teaching the profoundly mystical wisdom which it expounds.
“Yoga pants” are generally regarded as obscene, inappropriate, and unsightly in India, and are avoided by most. Women from the West are advised by authorities in India that they should not wear such clothing in India to avoid sexual harassment or assault. In cases when tight leggings are worn by Indians, they are typically accompanied by an extra long top that covers the legs to the knees. A few large Indian cities are beginning to embrace Western fashions and culture, and some Indians are beginning to wear Western style “Yoga pants.” But even the few people who wear them, would never consider wearing these to a Temple or Ashram where Yoga is taught. Would a Western woman wear "Yogas pants" to her own wedding? Probably not, because she wants to look her best. But Yoga is even more special and intimate than a wedding. It is the spiritual process of uniting oneself with the Divine Creator. People tend to wear their Sunday best when they go to church, not their exercise clothes. The same is true in India for the spiritual practice of Yoga. People wear their best new (or clean) Sari or Dhoti when they do practices designed to help them approach their beloved God or Goddess. “Yoga pants” are an outrage and an insult to the values and culture of traditional Yoga and Hinduism. But such garments have been named as “Yogas pants” in a perversion of the bona fide spiritual tradition, in order to mass-market a product which takes advantage of the tendency of West society sexualize women for the gratification of men. This is blatantly disrespectful to the ancient spiritual tradition of Yoga and the many thousands of Hindu people who practice Yoga daily as a means of seeking connection to the divine.
It is my humble opinion as a Hindu Priest and a Teacher of Traditional Yoga that, in respect for the spiritual science of Yoga and the great Hindu culture which gave it birth, those who practice Yoga in the West should absolutely stop wearing “Yoga pants.” They are inappropriate for a practitioner of Yoga both when doing their Yoga practice and when living their lives in the world. The practice of Yoga is not limited to a Yoga mat. It permeates every aspect of the practitioner’s life, as life presents many opportunity to deepen the practice. For people who are not practicing Yoga, I am no expert on Western culture or what people should or should not do or wear, so I am not really qualified to comment. Though I can admit it would make my Yoga practice easier if I was not forced to see people wearing Yoga pants every time I leave my home. Not everyone is seeking spiritual awareness. People are seeking many different things in this world, and I am not in a position to be able to comment on what attire best suits the purposes of all people. As a teacher of Yoga, I would say, however, that those who chose to wear these leggings should definitely not call them “Yoga pants.” They have nothing to do with Yoga and to call them such is misleading about the spiritual practice and potentially insulting to true Yoga practitioners and Hindus. We as Yoga practitioners should absolutely boycott any company or facility marketing such clothing as “Yoga apparel.” There is much misunderstanding about Hinduism and Yoga in the West and we should hold companies and organizations responsible for perpetuating such misunderstandings accountable for their actions by denying them our business. Western Yoga teachers and Yoga schools should absolutely prohibit wearing “Yoga pants” in their Yoga classes. What if pants with a revealing opening around the crotch were marketed as “Christian Communion Pants?” Westerners would not disrespect Christianity in this way, so we as Yoga teachers and Yoga practitioner should think about the effect of this name. Call them “leggings,” call them “tights,” call them “work-out pants,” but please do not name them for the sacred tradition of our beloved Sages who have attained enlightenment and revealed for the benefit of humanity the system of Yoga for transcending the body and mind.
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