Archive for the 'Faith' Category

A monk and his photographs

Photographs by my friend Nicky Vreeland.

A photographer by profession, he became a Tibetan Buddhist monk in 1985, and is now the Abbot of the Rato Dratsang Monastery in southern India.




The story of the turban

Kumbh Mela diary

Mark Tully in Outlook:

I’ve always seen the Kumbh Mela as a magnificent demo­ns­t­ration of the variety of Hinduism and its acceptance that there are many different roads to God. Ma Purn Pragnya, a member of the Nagaur royal fam­ily who has robed herself in saffron, gave us an impressive discourse which seemed to confirm that plurality until she said that in the end all roads led to Vedanta. However, my faith in Hindu plu­ralism was reconfirmed by the Kabir panthis, who are so opposed to ritualism that they don’t believe in bathing in the Ganges. Their acharya told us it was better to bathe under a tap because the water was cleaner. My theology was stretched by a dis­cussion on the vexed subject of sin with the American Sadhvi Bhagvati, an enthusiastic par­ticipant in the Ganga Action Plan launched by her Guru, Swami Chidanandji. She pointed out that Christians, like me, regard ourselves as mis­erable sinners whereas Hindus believe that God resides within them, which I had to admit was a more positive assessment of the human race. Among those representing the Hindu tradition of asce­ti­cism we found Mahant Bholagiri Bapu holding his withered left arm in the air. He told us he had been performing that tapasya for 37 years. Ashok Singhal, former president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, represented political Hinduism, altho­ugh he denied he had anything to do with politics. He saw the Kumbh as evidence that India was a spiritual nation where religious harmony was perfect, but went on to say that religions which converted would be crushed. More:

River of faith

A new documentary film about the Kumbh Mela 2013, Prayag, Allahabad. 56 minutes.

Namit Arora at 3quarksdaily:

The Kumbh Mela is an ancient pilgrimage festival that happens once every three years, rotating across four locations in India. The largest of these riverside fairs happens every 12 years in Allahabad at the confluence of two rivers, Ganga and Yamuna. On its opening day in January 2013, I was among its estimated ten million visitors. During the 6-8 weeks it lasts, tens of millions come to bathe in these rivers — as a meritorious act to cleanse body and soul — making it the largest gathering of humanity on the planet. On the festival’s most auspicious day in 2013, an estimated thirty million pilgrims came. The Kumbh Mela is also a meeting place for ascetics, sadhus, sants, gurus, yogis, sunyasis, bairagis, virakts, fakes, misfits, and crooks of various sects of Hinduism, who camp out in tents on the riverbank, lecture and debate, drink milky-syrupy chai, smoke ganja and hashish, and are visited by pilgrims seeking spiritual renewal. The sprawling floodplain resounds with devotional movie songs and bhajans, some strikingly melodious and familiar to me from childhood. More

Why the Dalai Lama is a Marxist

From tricycle:

When the Dalai Lama announced his Marxist leanings last summer in Minneapolis, the only surprise was how surprising it was. The blogosphere was once again astir with this nonrevelation, which came by way of an Indian-born Tibetan journalist, Tsering Namgyal, who had tagged along when the Dalai Lama held a nearly three-hour meeting with 150 Chinese students. Namgyal, a Mandarin-speaking reporter living and studying in Minneapolis, had posted online that the Dalai Lama surprised his young audience when he volunteered that “as far as sociopolitical beliefs are concerned, I consider myself a Marxist.”

 Namgyal’s post explained that a student had asked about the apparent contradiction between the Dalai Lama’s economic philosophy and Marx’s critique of religion. The Dalai Lama’s understanding was more nuanced than the responses of most of the bloggers who jumped on the story: he suggested that Marx was not actually against religion or religious philosophy per se but “against religious institutions that were allied, during Marx’s time, with the European ruling class.” (That would be the capitalist class.) The three-hour exchange was probably not designed for political sound bites. The year before the Dalai Lama had given a series of talks in New York at Radio City Music Hall. Following a press conference in the basement at Rockefeller Center, the Dalai Lama’s news office included this report in its summary:

 His Holiness said when he was in China in 1954–55, the Communist Party of China was really wonderful, and the Party members were really dedicated to the service of the people. His Holiness said he was very much impressed and told Chinese officials about his desire to join the Party. His Holiness said he still is a Marxist (although some of his friends ask him not to mention that) and he admired its objective of equal distribution (“this is moral ethics”). His Holiness however talked about the clampdown after the Hundred Flowers Campaign [1957] in China itself and said any authoritarian system always subdues any force that has the potential to stand up to it.

 You might think he had his thoughts on the 99 percent, but the Dalai Lama has stayed on message for years, saying the same thing many times in many places—including a Time magazine interview in 1999, and in the following passage from Beyond Dogma: Dialogues and Discourses, in 1996:

 Of all the modern economic theories, the economic system of Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned with only with gain and profitability. Marxism is concerned with the distribution of wealth on an equal basis and the equitable utilization of the means of production. More:

Harvard and the Kumbh Mela

In Mint:

Behind the massive show of religious devotion is a quiet secular machine that services the millions who pour into Allahabad for the Kumbh Melas. The details are mind boggling. The crowd on the main days is large enough to be visible from space satellites. Some 25,000 tonnes of foodgrains are sent to feed the pilgrims. About 700,000 tents are erected to house the visitors. Pipes have to be laid so that clean drinking water is available. A temporary super-specialty hospital has been built for anybody who falls seriously sick. Thirty-one police stations and 41 police check-posts have come up to maintain law and order. Massive television screens flash information about missing people. Thirty-six fire stations will get into the act in case there is a conflagration.

The entire effort is so unique that it has attracted the attention of Harvard University. Six of its departments are collaborating to understand the Kumbh Mela phenomenon: the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard Divinity School, Harvard Graduate School of Design, Harvard Business School, Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health. More:


 South Asia Institute at Harvard


A dangerous precedent

Why a ban on the entry of women to the so-far inclusive Haji Ali mosque and dargah in Mumbai should concern every Indian. Namita Bhandare in Hindustan Times.

In all the years that I lived in Mumbai, I must have passed by the mosque on the sea over a hundred times. For me, Haji Ali is imprinted in my imagination as an indelible part of the syncretic, inclusive culture of a city I love. But I never actually went inside. So why does the news of a ban on the entry of women into the sanctum sanctorum of the dargah dismay me? How does it concern me? There are dargahs where women traditionally do not enter the actual mazaar (grave) of the saint. In Delhi’s Nizamuddin, women can pray at the shrine, but cannot enter it. The entry of women is also curtailed at the shrine of Qutubuddin Bakhteyaar Kaaki, the patron saint of Delhi, points out film-maker Sohail Hashmi. But the shrine of Pir Haji Ali Bukhari built in 1431 has traditionally allowed men and women equal access. It is only over the past year that someone put up a steel barricade that now prevents women from entering the actual shrine. more

The stories of our fathers

Aman Ali’s moving piece in New York Times

IN the heart of Berlin this summer I walked on stage at the Babylon Theater and began telling stories.

I was nervous. I’m a practicing Muslim, and I didn’t know how a German audience would react to an awkward, hairy brown kid.

I talked. I talked about my life, and how as a child I’d bring home a report card with a 95 percent on it, and my father would say, “Why isn’t this 100 percent? If you weren’t slacking off, you’d have 100 percent.”

An old story, perhaps, but one that gets laughs.

It still drives me nuts because he still does it. more

Beyond recognition and misrecognition: the shooting at Oak Creek gurdwara

By Amardeep Singh:

One of the issues that has come up periodically in the Sikh community in the U.S. since 9/11 has been how to handle the common problem that men in turbans are presumed by many Americans to be Muslims. A man named Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot down in Arizona just a few days after 9/11 for precisely that kind of misrecognition, and there were quite a number of other instances of attacks not as extreme as murder that occurred in those first few months.

2001-2002 happened to be my first year teaching at Lehigh. I was living alone in Bethlehem itself, close to the university, and believe me, I felt the intensity of that hostility, both while driving and of course on foot. But it wasn’t just a small town issue; the sense of smouldering hostility was also something one felt on the streets of Philadelphia and, not surprisingly, New York. I heard a lot of ugly taunts and insults, and had a couple of encounters that might have been dangerous if I hadn’t decided to walk away very quickly. I was kind of spooked, and like a lot of Sikhs that fall I put a bumper sticker on my car with a U.S. flag, announcing myself as a “Sikh American,” crossed my fingers, and tried to stick to stay focused on teaching literature. That year I ate a lot of Drive-Thru fast food and missed the fun grad-school life I had left behind in cosmopolitan (really) North Carolina.

About a year later everyone started to calm down and I put a lot of my feelings from that first year behind me. (And yes, I eventually took the bumper sticker off the car.)

Obviously, the Sikh community realized very quickly that fall that it wouldn’t do to simply say, “Don’t hate me, I’m not a Muslim.” And by and large people have avoided that particular phrasing and rhetoric. The Sikh advocacy organizations that were organized shortly after 9/11, chief among them the Sikh Coalition, were very emphatic on the point that they were opposed to hate crimes directed against any group based on religious hostility. More:

Why racism, ignorance are to blame

Seema Sirohi at First Post:

But for the Sikh community in the United States, solving one hate crime may not be enough. They have been at the receiving end since 9/11 — repeatedly mistaken for who they are not. Ignorance about the turban, long hair and kirpan is rampant.

The Sikh Coalition, an activist group, counts 700 cases of random violence, killings, vandalism, bullying, beatings and intimidation against the Sikh community. “Real Sikhism,” another community group, counts 1000 cases of hate crimes, starting on the very day the airplanes flew into the World Trade Center and changed the way many think about crime and punishment.

So in the aftermath of the Wisconsin shootings, surrealism reigned on the news channels. Anchors were educating the average American about Sikhism and Islam and patiently explaining the differences. But should the distinction matter? I can be any faith, wear a turban or not, wear a hijab or not, wear a kara or not, but I shouldn’t be killed for wearing my religion on my sleeve. more

When a little village in Kerala found itself caught up in a panic about the apocalypse

Sidin Vadukut in Motherland:

An hour away from Thrissur, in central Kerala, lies a little town that, to use a popular Indian usage, I call “my native place.” The town of Pavaratty is best known for the massive warehouse-like shrine of St. Joseph, a bustling local pilgrimage centre. The shrine looms over the town with a population of about 11 000, emotionally, geographically and architecturally. Distances are measured from the shrine. Events are remembered in reference to the shrine’s calendar of feasts and festivals. In Pavaratty the shrine is pole star, magnetic north, prime meridian and equator all rolled into one. This pivotal presence of the shrine imparts a certain intensity to the religion of the local Christians.

It is not a hostile intensity – the kind that leads to xenophobia or agitation. Quite the opposite. It is the benign intensity of Star Trek or Star Wars fans who, while acknowledging the unassailable superiority of their own beliefs, are quite happy to play along with your own under-educated biases. So while my grandfather had no doubt that Christians were God’s chosen people, he still believed that the great Hindu temple at Guruvayoor, 30 minutes away, was a source of divinity and power.

There is also a thick syncretic vein that runs through the Christianity of the region. Over the centuries, customs and rituals have changed hands between religions more times than many like to admit. For instance, each year before the shrine’s major annual feast on the third Sunday after Easter, a flag is hoisted up the pole in front of the church. The flagpole lines up almost exactly with the crucifix above the altar inside. But is slightly shifted to one side, out of deference to the deity. More:

Trying to become pregnant, the Eastern way

Tarquin Hall, author of “The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken,” in NYT:

I was lying stark naked on a hard wooden slab with two men slathering my limbs in sticky, pungent oil. Without warning, one of them tried to give me an enema using a rubber hose. My cry of “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” was met with a mumbled apology. The masseur meant no harm. But for me, a naturally reserved — some would say squeamish — Brit brought up to believe that nudity is something they do on the Continent, this was pure humiliation.

“Everything is all right, Mr. Haaall?”came a woman’s voice from outside the cubicle. It belonged to the Ayurvedic doctor responsible for the “therapy” I was undergoing.

“I’m hating every minute of this!” I replied.

“How you’ll ever get pregnant with such thinking?” she admonished. “Consider your darling wife. She is suffering too much. You must relax — have some faith.”

This was Day 3 of a monthlong program to help my wife, Anu, and me conceive a child. We’d been married 10 years and trying to have a baby for 5. More:

Kumaré – The True Story of A False Prophet

Sri Kumaré is an enlightened guru from the East who has come to America to spread his teachings. After three months in Phoenix, Kumaré has found a group of devoted students who embrace him as a true spiritual teacher. But beneath his long beard, deep penetrating eyes, and his endless smile, Kumaré has a secret he is about to unveil to his disciples: he is not real. Kumaré is really Vikram Gandhi, an American filmmaker from New Jersey who wanted to see if he could transform himself into a guru and build a following of real people. Now, he is conflicted — can he unveil the truth to these disciples with whom he has spent so much time, and who now look to him for guidance? More

Vikram Gandhi: Directing ‘Kumaré’ – From Illusion Comes Truth from Piers Fawkes on Vimeo.

American Buddhist monk is abbot of Rato monastery in Karnataka

The Dalai Lama has appointed Nicholas (“Nicky” to his friends) Vreeland, 56, as the new abbot of Rato Monastery in Karnataka, India. This is the first time that a Westerner has been appointed as abbot of an important Tibetan Buddhist monastery. The monastery in Mungud, Karnataka, has been designed by Delhi-based architect Pradeep Sachdeva.

Nicholas Vreeland, grandson of the iconic fashion editor Diane Vreeland and son of former U.S. ambassador Frederick Vreeland, is the director of the Tibet Center in New York. He was educated in Europe, North Africa, and the United States, studied in NYU film school, after which he pursued a career in photography. In the late sixties and early seventies, he worked as an assistant to famous photographers Irving Penn and Richard Avedon.[Facebook Nalanda Monastery]

Watch Buddhist Abbot Nicholas Vreeland on PBS. See more from Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

A recent PBS interview:

LAWTON: It was Richard Avedon’s son John who in 1977 first introduced Vreeland to Khyongla Rato Rinpoche, founder of the Tibet Center. Under Rinpoche’s supervision, Vreeland began learning about Tibetan Buddhism.

 Then in 1979, he went on a photography assignment in India. Because of his growing interest in Tibetan Buddhism, he included a visit to Dharamsala, headquarters of the Dalai Lama. Vreeland received permission to photograph the Tibetan leader. His camera had an extremely slow exposure, so his subjects had to sit absolutely still for one minute. That was a challenge for the Dalai Lama.

VREELAND: The shutter opened and we waited 10 seconds, 20 seconds, 30 seconds, 40, seconds, 50 seconds, and then his holiness started to move. And we did one time after another, after another, and suddenly after all these attempts to get a, a fully, a properly exposed shot, we both burst into laughter and it was as if all the tension went.

LAWTON: The Dalai Lama tried standing and they finally managed to get the shot.

VREELAND: His holiness very, very kindly remained there as I packed up my equipment and talked to me. And I had been so moved by the way in which the Tibetan people had supported me, had helped me in my travels and during my time in Dharamsala, and I asked his holiness what I could do in return. And he said, “Study.” More

The Rato Dratsang Temple, campus, guesthouse, and all landscaping, were designed by Delhi-based architect Pradeep Sachdeva and his associates Vidya Tongbram and Madhu Shankar. [Pradeep Sachdeva Design Associates website here].

“The original Rato Monastery, located on the outskirts of Lhasa, Tibet, was established in the 14th century. “Though there are over 1,000 Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, Rato Monastery (in Karnataka) is one of only a dozen important Tibetan Government monasteries under the Dalai Lama’s patronage.”

A recent exhibition of Vreeland’s work, entitled Photos for Rato, toured major cities around the world and raised most of the funds needed for the construction of Rato Monastery’s new campus and temple, which was inaugurated by the Dalai Lama on January 31, 2011.

[Both Nicky and Pradeep are my very good friends: Shekhar Bhatia]

[See The monk who sold his pictures at Asian Window, Vreeland's website here and read NYT here]

Going on faith

Abraham Verghese writes for T Magazine of The New York Times on a recent visit back to Kerala, a visit that is blessed in more ways than one.

The morning I arrived in Trivandrum, the capital of the south Indian state of Kerala, I met my friend Vinita, a Hindu, who promised to accompany me on a visit to the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple, a place that is generally off limits to nonbelievers. Though my family is from Kerala, we are Christians, a community dating back to A.D. 52 with the arrival of St. Thomas on these shores. “Doubting” Thomas converted Brahmins to the faith, who are now the so-called Syrian or St. Thomas Christians. And that morning, one of their fold was proposing to enter a Hindu temple.

I had always wanted to see this legendary Lord Vishnu temple, and not just because it had been very much in the news. One of the six vaults under the temple, dedicated in 1750 by the Maharaja of Travancore, was opened recently by court order and found to contain gold and jewelry worth a staggering $22 billion. more

In Kashmir, ‘good’ Barelvis vs ‘dangerous’ Wahabis

Sectarian shadow boxing between Islamic sects is getting full play in Kashmir. It’s the ‘Good Barelvis’ versus ‘Dangerous Wahabis’. And the duel seems to be getting some support of the Centre and its agencies. Could this turn out to be the kind of folly the State committed when it played footsie with Bhindranwale in Punjab, asks Randeep Singh Nandal in Times of India

Chances are that Pir Jalaluddin, head of the Batmaloo Sahib shrine in Srinagar, never heard the two bullets that hit him on the night of March 17. But for many in Kashmir, these were echoes of a sectarian war in the making in the Valley. The Pir belonged to a new aggressive group of the Barelvi sect of Islam in Kashmir, a grouping that in the past six months has lost no opportunity to rally its large following in the state.

Shrine-going Barelvis constitute about 70% of J&K’s Muslims – an overwhelming majority in the Valley. However, the past 20 years have seen the more puritanical Wahabis like Ahle Hadith make rapid inroads in the state – a spread that is often ascribed to vast inflow of foreign funds to these organisations from Saudi Arabia. Thanks to their resources, Wahabi groups have ensured easy availability of Wahabi literature. more

The industrious god

Gautam Pemmaraju at 3quarksdaily:

The beleaguered liquor baron/industrialist/MP Vijay Mallya, considered to be the ‘Richard Branson of India’ by many, is currently seeking ways to rescue his debt-ridden airline. Having drastically cancelled flights over the last few weeks, the colourful airline promoter, who also has an Indian Premier League cricket team, an F1 racing car, one of the biggest private yacht’s in the world, a slew of vintage cars, amongst other baubles, has been defending himself against widespread criticism. Speculations of a possible government bailout have angered many around the country.

He is also a patron of the historic temple in the hills of Tirupati, in southern Andhra Pradesh, bordering Tamil Nadu. With a prominent guesthouse there, he is known to be an avid devotee of the resident god Venkateshwara (also Balaji, Srinivasa), and has never been shy with either devotion or largesse. Newspaper reports abound that every new aircraft of his first takes a flight of obeisance around the Tirumala hills where the temple is located, before ferrying passengers.

A former BJP minister of Karnataka and mining baron, G Janardhan Reddy, who is now in jail on charges of illegal mining, had donated to the temple a ‘2.5 foot long, 30 kg’ diamond encrusted gold crown worth over $10 million then in 2009. Recently the temple administration (the Tirumala-Tirupati Devasthanam trust or TTD) stated officially that there was no question of returning the gift in response to demands calling for its return. Political parties and other groups led protests against the ‘tainted’ offering, claiming that it “polluted the sacred ambience of the sanctum sanctorum”. Earlier this year, the now incarcerated politician and his brother (known as the Reddy brothers – partners in the controversial Obulapuram Mining Company) donated yet another diamond studded crown, gold laden garments and other ornaments worth around $3.5 million, to the deity at Srikalahasti temple, which is at the foothills of the main temple. More:

The Taj Mahal of Appalachia

The death of disgraced Hare Krishna leader Swami Bhaktipada dredges up memories for Rahul Mehta in this New York Times piece:

It was the Taj Mahal of Appalachia, “Heaven on Earth” in “Almost Heaven West Virginia,” a sprawling, opulent affair with lush gardens, a beautiful temple, a Palace of Gold, accommodations for hundreds of devotees, statues of Radha and Krishna, and even, at one point, an elephant.

New Vrindaban — named after a holy town in India — was the largest Hare Krishna commune in America, and was opened to the public in 1979. It was led by Swami Bhaktipada, one of the movement’s earliest and most controversial American disciples, who died Monday. And it was less than two hours from the West Virginia town where I grew up.

My family went there often in those first years, ferrying carloads of Indian friends and relatives who came to see us (and the palace) from all around the United States. My parents and their friends were part of the first wave of Indians to arrive in America after the 1965 Immigration Act loosened restrictions on South Asians. This new immigrant community, just putting down roots, had very few places to worship; there were hardly any Hindu temples in America. For them, New Vrindaban provided an opportunity to pray in a proper mandir instead of at a makeshift altar in someone’s basement. More:

An agnostic in Kailash

Dilip Simeon in Himal Southasian:

In 2009, I undertook what was to be the most memorable journey of my life. I have made other momentous journeys, but none of them stand out so unmistakably as this trip to western Tibet by air, road and foot. It is undertaken mainly by pilgrims, to a place considered sacred by hundreds of millions of Buddhists, Hindus and Bon-pos (followers of the pre-Buddhist Tibetan shamanistic faith). When it ended, I understood why so many sought to come to this place.

The trip was motivated solely by the fascination for Manasarovar and Kailash – the sacred lake and peak at the culmination of the journey – on the part of our team leader, my dear friend Madhu Sarin, for whom this was the fifth pilgrimage to the area in nine years. Her intense descriptions and photographs had kindled my interest, and although I knew I would accompany her someday, the declining health of my parents had previously made it impossible to fix a date. As their only child, I had responsibilities that made it unthinkable for me to undertake a dangerous journey to places out of reach by telephone, from which it was impossible to return at short notice. And after my mother passed away in 2004, I was preoccupied with looking after my father, who died in 2007. It was all very painful, but with both of them gone the pilgrimage became possible. As it turned out, it also acquired a transcendent meaning for me, because I took along some relics of my parents.

At 15,000 feet, Manasarovar is one of the highest freshwater lakes in the world. It has a circumference of nearly 90 km, while the circumambulation of Mount Kailash, which lies to the north of Manasarovar, traverses about 52 km of mountain trails. It is located in a remote part of Tibet beneath the trans-Himalaya, a range much older than the Himalaya. Many Indian pilgrims take the Indian government’s sponsored tours, which began during the late 1970s after Beijing began to permit them. However ours was a privately organised one – this meant both that it was more expensive and that we could proceed at our own pace. More:

Not an article of faith

Karnataka’s education minister wants the Bhagavad Gita to be taught for an hour every day in government schools. So far, the High Court has granted a stay. But does religion have any role in school instruction? Are there no redeeming features? And why not teach the Bible, Koran, Guru Granth Sahib and teachings from the Buddha and Mahavira too? Namita Bhandare in Hindustan Times

Karnataka Education Minister Visheshwar Hegde Kageri wants every Indian to respect the Bhagavad Gita — or leave. “Only those who love to adopt western culture can oppose the Gita. Such persons may well quit the country,” the minister is reported to have said. The timing — just as his boss B.S. Yeddyurappa, four BJP ministers, a former chief minister and a Congress MP are being indicted for their role in illegal mining — couldn’t have been more ironic. Certainly, Karnataka’s corrupt political class would benefit most with lessons in morality.

Alas, Kageri isn’t focusing on the education of his peers. More

Indian spiritualism made for the modern age

Manu Joseph in The New York Times:

A peculiar characteristic of Indian leaders who claim to represent the average man is that they dress very differently from him. The majority of Indian men today wear shirts and trousers, including a tribal king who lives on top of a hill in the South Indian state of Kerala. But political and philosophical figures in India continue to wear costumes from another time. Among them is a middle-aged man in white silk robes.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the founder of a movement called the Art of Living, is one of the most influential people in urban India. It may appear that Sri Sri is a typo, but it is actually a compliment he has paid himself. A single “Sri” is an honorific that can be granted to any Indian male. A double “Sri” is in spiritual territory.

The Art of Living Foundation, for a fee, tells people how to breathe, how to meditate and how to manage stress. It has hundreds of outlets across India and the rest of the world offering to teach breathing techniques, including one that Mr. Shankar (no relation to the famous sitar player) claims he has invented. In the first week of July, in Berlin, the Art of Living Foundation celebrated 30 years of existence.

It is not surprising that the first decade of the foundation was unremarkable. In the 1980s, the Indian middle class was closer in spirit to the poor than to the rich. There were no solutions to emotional problems. The sleeping pill came close, but there was something morbidly modern about it. Art films showed tragic creative men and licentious women in sleeveless blouses taking sleeping pills. More:

The origins of Ramdev

Rahul Bhatia in Open:

One night in April, 11 years ago, a former journalist and the owner of a production house in Mumbai met for the first time and discussed a ludicrous idea: starting a spiritual TV channel. Madhav Kant Mishra was keen, but Kirit Mehta, the studio owner, told him that his proposition was good only as a ‘dharam-karam channel’, implying that such a venture would not be profitable.

Mehta’s production studio, CMM, had a reputation for crisp music videos and shows, and he wanted to launch his own music channel. Mishra’s ambition was roused by what he saw as a dismissal. He recalls: “I told him, ‘No, there will come a day when this channel will earn real money, and your music channel will shut down’.”

The meeting, which began at 11 pm, ended at daybreak in an impasse. But Mishra had indeed managed to put his point across. For, just two months later, on 18 June 2000, Mehta launched his channel, broadcasting both music and spiritual programmes on the same beam. For Mishra, who was part of the project, “re-establishing old wisdom” was a personal goal. Spirituality had deep roots in his family (“My father was a saint,” he says.) Mishra had edited five Hindi publications, and realised that television could help him take spirituality to places print couldn’t reach.

For six hours a day, the new channel broadcast shows that spiritual leaders sent on tape. This continued until the numbers were irrefutable: the ratings for spiritual fare—under the title Aastha—were rising rapidly. Within a few months of the channel’s launch, it was decided that it would have its own beam. Music had a separate channel, which later went spiritual too (as Aastha International). More:

If slaughterhouses had glass walls…

By PETA India:


A god is dead, but it’s business that may suffer most

Jim Yardley in The New York Times:

PUTTAPARTHI, India: His face adorns the yellow motorized rickshaws zipping down the streets. Billboards bear his simple motto, “Love All, Serve All.” His portrait hangs in almost every shop: a tiny man with a gravity-defying crown of curly hair regarded by millions of worldwide devotees as a god.

Sri Sathya Sai Baba, who declared himself a “living god” as a teenager and spent decades assembling a spiritual empire, permeates every corner of this small Indian city. He transformed it from a village of mud huts into a faith center with a private airport, a university, two major hospitals, rising condominium towers and a stadium — a legacy now forcing a question upon his followers: What happens when a god dies?

India can sometimes seem overrun with gurus, spiritualists and competing godmen (as they are sometimes called). But when Sai Baba died last month at the age of 84, the nation paused in respect and reverence, if blended with skepticism, too. An estimated 900,000 people, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, paid respects at his ornate wake and funeral, which was televised live across the country. Critics labeled him a fraud and bemoaned the Indian predisposition for religious entrepreneurs.

Now, though, as the shock is starting to wear off here in Puttaparthi, people are grappling with what comes next. Sai Baba was a spiritual leader but also an economic engine. Business owners are wondering whether adherents will keep coming; construction abruptly stopped on several half-built residential towers. Sai Baba’s medical, educational and philanthropic institutions are suddenly without a leader. And for believers, there is the question of when, and in what form, he will be reincarnated. More:

Buddhist economics

The Wisdom of Sustainability: Buddhist Economics for the 21st Century by Sulak Sivaraksa (Souvenir Press £10). In The Independent:

The 78-year-old Thai Buddhist, twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and a winner of the Right Livelihood Award (considered the “alternative Nobel”), has been called “one of Asia’s leading social thinkers” by Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi. It is possible, however, that if the Prime Minister were to leaf through The Wisdom of Sustainability: Buddhist Economics for the 21st Century, some of Sivaraksa’s conclusions might strike Cameron as a little strong.

“Globalisation,” he writes, “is a demonic religion imposing materialistic values,” and “a new form of colonialism”. If Cameron is fond of the odd cola on the beach, he’d better stop. “To drink Coca-Cola or Pepsi-Cola in Siam is not just to ingest junk food, but to support exploitative values.” Economic crises such as those that hit the West in 2008 and East Asia a decade earlier are “heavenly messengers” to “encourage us to seek alternative” models – as Sivaraksa told a no doubt startled James Wolfensohn, the former president of the World Bank.

These may be tough words, but Sivaraksa is not one for thinking great thoughts from a monastic seclusion that means he never has to try them out in practice. Over four decades, he has set up numerous NGOs in Thailand, taught at universities across the world and advised the government of Bhutan on how to implement its famed concept of Gross National Happiness. His efforts have been recognised with numerous awards, the latest of which is the Niwano Peace Prize, which comes with a cheque for around £150,000. (The ceremony was due to take place in Tokyo this month but has been delayed because of the tsunami.) More:

No sting in the monk’s tale

How a blundering shoot-first-think-later accusation by Indian authorities nearly made an enemy of a very influential Tibetan. Hartosh Singh Bal in Open:

When I was leaving Tibet, you must appreciate I was leaving everything behind… India was the land of the Buddha, a place where wishes were fulfilled. I told the people who came with me, as we turned to India, that even if we are caught and killed after taking just three steps towards India I would not have an iota of remorse, that was the amount of faith and hope and affection I had for India. After 11 years here this should now be clear. Yet such an unwarranted accusation has been a source of tremendous hurt, it is difficult to forget it in my lifetime.

Words of dismay, but understandably so. For any Tibetan to be called a Chinese spy would always be a source of consternation, but the young man speaking at the press conference in Delhi was no ordinary Tibetan. On any other day his anguish would have made headlines, but it was also the day Osama’s death became public. In the ensuing frenzy, the story of the quiet withdrawal of a bizarre charge has not received the attention it deserves.

As spy stories go, it was always a difficult sell. Thanks to some imaginative leaks by senior Himachal policemen, the seizure of Rs 1 crore traced back to a monastery in Dharamshala became the source of allegations against the young man who is by far the most widely accepted claimant to the title of the Karmapa, head of the Kagyu sect.

But even to make sense of what the young man was doing in Dharamshala, and why the charges mattered, requires relating an old story. More:

With a pinch of ash

Making sense of Sathya Sai Baba’s immense power and following. Pratap Bhanu Mehta in The Indian Express:

It was humbling and moving. Our mortal god was mourning the passing of a godman. So it felt as pictures of Tendulkar paying homage to Sathya Sai Baba flashed across the world. It is always presumptuous to claim to know what “faith” is. It is even more presumptuous to second guess the pathways and motivations that lead to it. That is why both loud assertions on its behalf and equally vehement acts of debunking almost always strike a false note. Both claim more knowledge than they are entitled to. A genuinely deep struggle to make sense of the nature of our place in the universe is much too complicated to be reduced to simple dualisms of faith and reason. The course of any single life is itself mysterious enough, subject to contingency, shaped by causes we do not fully understand. To not acknowledge this is to be wilfully blind to the fact that the world is, for anyone who cares to reflect on it, experienced as a mystery.

The quest to come to terms with everyday mysteries can take many forms. Often it expresses itself in ways we exhibit gullibility, a suspension of minimal reflection that is self-defeating. This gullibility can sometimes be endearingly silly. Often it has dangerously legitimised abuses of power. There is often good reason to be sceptical of particular claims to the miraculous or the divine. But it is more difficult to debunk those claims than we think. The enduring following of men like Sai Baba demonstrates that incredibly large numbers of intelligent and clear-thinking people can inhabit different orders of causality with-out experiencing a contradiction. Perhaps there is a deeper truth in this more abundant view of what is possible. While disenchantment can seem heroic against the irrational exuberance of faith, the lack of enchantment can itself produce deep intellectual closures and premature condescension. There is something eminently understandable about the metaphysical impulses that drive us towards godmen. Chesterton, in his inimitable fashion, once said something to the effect that the whole secret of mysticism was that one can understand everything by the help of what one cannot understand. “The morbid logician, on the other hand, seeks to make everything lucid and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious and everything else becomes lucid.” In part, our fascination with godmen is the way in which they deploy a mystery in the service of something followers experience as some kind of workable clarity. More:


A skeptic’s guide to reincarnation

Hartosh Singh Bal in 3quarksdaily:

The Karmapa sits cross-legged on a throne facing several rows of monks, mostly Tibetan and male, arrayed on the floor according to rank. The rows behind the monks are the lay deity, most Western and female, gathered here to hear him preach during his annual sojourn at Sarnath, just a few miles from Benares. A life-size picture of the Dalai Lama looks down on him, above and beyond golden against the vivid blue, yellow and oranges of the murals on the monastery walls a giant statue of the Buddha dwarfs them both.

He is speaking at the Vajra meditation centre, across the road from the centre is the boundary wall of the deer park where the Budha first preached the dhamma almost 2,500 years ago. I am in the audience because a series of ham-handed interventions by the state government of Himachal Pradesh, the state where the Dalai Lama has dwelt in India after his flight from Tibet in 1959, have managed to rather implausibly brand the Karmapa a Chinese spy, the others in the audience, pained as they are by the charges, are here because they believe the 26-year-old seated before them is seventeenth in the line of reincarnations that date back to the first Karmapa born in 1110.

Since then, they believe, each Karmapa has left a message foretelling where he would be reborn, and senior Lamas of the Kagyu sect (one of the four important schools of Tibetan Buddhism including the Dalai Lama’s Gelug school that attained political power in Tibet in the seventeenth century with some help from the Mongols) have set out in search each time a Karmapa has died. The idea became central to Tibetan Buddhism and was slowly imitated by other schools. The Dalai Lama lineage starts hundreds of years later, which is why the current Dalai Lama is but the fourteenth in the chain of reincarnations.

The system has given rise to an elaborate web of interrelated reincarnations comprising the important lamas of the various sects. When a young boy is identified as a reincarnation based on a set of signs and portents, he is brought to be trained at a monastery, usually by the very men who had been taught by his predecessor, and when they die it is he who will identify their reincarnations. Unlike a western observer, the concept is not alien to me, quite the contrary. Among my people, the Sikhs, it is the tenth guru – Gobind Singh who brought the line of living gurus to an end by vesting that spiritual power in a book that is largely a compilation of their writings. More:

Dalai Lama to give up his role as Tibet’s political leader

The Dalai Lama said on Thursday he would step down as Tibet’s political leader. His role now is spiritual leadership only. The political functions will be devolved on an elected prime minister.

“As early as the 1960s, I have repeatedly stressed that Tibetans need a leader, elected freely by the Tibetan people, to whom I can devolve power,” he said in his annual speech marking 52 years since he fled Tibet after a failed uprising against the Chinese.”Now, we have clearly reached the time to put this into effect,” he told a subdued crowd of 2,000 monks and Tibetans. More here.

The question of who succeeds the Dalai Lama as spiritual leader will come to a head when he dies. Read here

Who is the Dalai Lama? Read here and here.

The indispensable incarnation

Talk of the Dalai Lama’s “retirement” shows how much Tibet still needs him. Yet so does China. In The Economist:

Enthroned in a maroon and saffron pavilion, the 14th Dalai Lama chuckled often as he preached to the football stadium, though his text was not taken from the jolly slogan behind him: “Play soccer for world peace”. Ringed by snowcapped Himalayan peaks in Gangtok, capital of the Indian state of Sikkim, which borders Tibet, tens of thousands basked in midwinter sunshine—local Sikkimese of Nepali and ethnic-Tibetan descent, visitors and, of course, Tibetan exiles. The Dalai Lama may exaggerate a bit when he says that 99% of Tibetans trust him. But not by much. So his recent talk of “retirement” has unnerved many.

In November he said he was seriously thinking of retiring. An election in 2001 for his government-in-exile had already ended the 400-year tradition of Dalai Lamas as both spiritual and political leaders. After an election in March this year, he would discuss with the new parliament when to give up his remaining “temporal” role. He expected to retire in the “next few months”.

The Dalai Lama has long stressed his work not as a political leader but as a scholar and guardian of the Buddhist tradition he embodies. In Gangtok he attended a seminar on spirituality and science. His lecture on the soccer pitch was on a rather abstruse commentary by a second- or third-century Indian philosopher, Nagarjuna (“The form particle does not produce sense-consciousness because it transcends the senses.”). The Dalai Lama turned it into an accessible sermon on how to live your life.

Politics, however, will not let Tibet’s spiritual leader go. His presence in Sikkim was in itself a measured gesture of Indian defiance towards China. India annexed the former kingdom in 1975. China long refused to recognise Sikkim’s incorporation into India, though since 2004 Chinese maps have shown it as an Indian state, and in 2006 a modest border trade began. The Dalai Lama’s eight-day tour of Sikkim was pointedly timed to come just after Wen Jiabao, China’s prime minister, had been in Delhi, discussing how to improve ties. Tibet remains one of the strains. The Dalai Lama, with some 100,000 followers, has made his home in India since fleeing Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, in 1959. More:

Spiritual social networking

The Times of India has launched “the world’s first spiritual social networking website” — It “welcomes you to follow and connect, one on one, with nearly 20 masters including Sri Sri Ravishankar, Maulana Wahiddudin Khan, Deepak Chopra, Anandmurti Gurumaa, Thich Nhat Hanh and Andrew Cohen.”