In the coming weeks and months, I would like to objectively discuss Hinduism, a Dharmic ethos that encapsulates the longing and path to liberation from all bondages of mind and body.
In this attempt, I will bring interviews with some non-Indian Hindus to learn their perspective and their travails. It is important to look at this ethos from the viewpoint of someone who didn’t grow up in it.
Somehow the Indian Hindus have this ego that they know “Hinduism” simply because they heard the words and chants. That is nonsense. In fact, I find Indian Hindus to be remarkably ignorant about the ethos, the spirituality and the philosophy.
So, this series will be an attempt for the Indian Hindus to learn something. Towards that, this is the first interview with Yathavan Ramanuja Dasan who writes on the blog “A Western Sri Vaishnava”. For more of his writings, please do visit his informative blog.
I would like for the non-Indian Hindus to share their opinions bluntly and openly. If they find something drastically wrong with the Indian Hindus, I would like for them to share it. So, please read these interviews with a sense of open-ness to learn.
I hope this will be a great learning experience for all!
1. How did you know for the first time that you were a “Hindu”? What did it mean?
First off I’d like to say that I never considered myself “Hindu”. Having come from a background in history and archaeology I’ve always known the origins of the term and what it meant. Having said that I have described myself as such, as such a term can not be avoided in the west, due to ignorance and popular use of the term in the west. In fact during my initiations (samashrayanam) in to the Sri Vaishnava Sampradaya, I accidently said hindu and my Guru stopped me and corrected me stating Hinduism is a foreign word that has no real meaning and from this point on I am a Sri Vaishnava.
To answer your question, I have always been drawn to Sanatana Dharma. Having grown up in the UK and having many Indian mates, some of my earliest memories are depictions of the Lord and other Devas, but was never quite sure how to approach this path. Many times in my life I had an opportunity, but it never seemed quite right or I totally ignored it thinking it was just nostalgia from when I was younger.
Finally, 10 years ago, I was a practicing buddhist, but something always didn’t seem quite right. As if something important was missing.
I met a wonderful Gujarati couple at a place of work who immediately warmed up to me, the wife was always trying to marry me off LOL and the Husband, for no reason started teaching me the basic tenants of SD. So I incorporated all that I learned from him into my established buddhism. Things felt better and I wish now I had learned more and embraced it more, but I think I wasn’t truly ready. Which I wasn’t, shortly after I fell into a fairly deep despair and held no spirituality at all for a few years, being totally miserable.
Then two or so years ago, I was in a bad relationship, was out of work and really hit rock bottom. Now before I write the next part, please understand that at this point spirituality was the least of my worries and I do not have flights of fantasy. Anyway, late one night, about 3 am I was jolted awake with the sound of AUM in my ears, I sat up and closed my eyes and I see this figure before me. I open my eyes and close them again and there was Sri Ram (I didn’t know this at the time) with four arms and smiling in a warming way. I felt a warmth in my chest and I found myself unable to think or speak, no words were exchange but it felt like we talked for hours and when I opened my eyes I knew what I needed to do. I got right up and went straight to the computer and started searching. In fact I was dogged in finding something and for two weeks I went round and round in circles, neglecting my work and everything trying to seek an answer. Finally, I had to stop.
I was driving myself mad and made the decision to stop searching and the next day I had my first break though. So I started again and had three things that popped in my head.
First, I realized Sri Rama/ Vishnu awakened my Jiva. Second, I was drawn to the vishishtadvaita philosophy, which I found the most compelling and fit best with my understanding. Thirdly, I needed to find a Guru to help me.
All three of these things came to me out of the blue, before these three things I come to the conclusion that either I give up, join ISKCON (which I did not want to do) or follow up on an inquiry I made to the Nimbarka Sampradaya that wasn’t quite the right fit. The next morning, armed with these three things, I found the Sri Vaishnava sampradaya.
Actually, I found Chinna Jeeyar Swamiji, but in my ignorance, I passed it thinking I was drwn to Sri Rama and they place importance on Srimannaraya. Wow was I ignorant haha.
So then I found the Ramanandi Sect and made some friends, and one who was a pandit helped me get started. Soon, something seemed to be missing yet again. Like I was close but just couldn’t make it over the river. I was telling this to a Vadakalai friend I made through my blog and then he asked me why the Ramanandi and I told him it fit all three of my inspirations but felt hollow and told him of my initial draw to the Sri Vaishnava Sampradaya, but didn’t follow through because of my love and devotion to Sri Rama. He had a huge laugh and from that point on he became like a brother to me and it all started clicking, it was all making sense and I finally felt at home. a year later I travelled 2300 miles to receive samashrayanam from HH Chinna Jeeyar Swamiji.
And honestly, I’m the happiest I’ve been in years and so many doors have opened to me.
As for what did it means to me? Simple, the world.
2. Beyond all the ideological stuff, what is it about Hinduism that appeals to you?
Besides the fact that SD is the most complete, vast and correct system ever? Well I really can’t say it’s the indian culture like most of my western brothers and sisters. Perhaps I should expound upon this.
I do not wish to get dressed up and play at being Indian. I incorporate enough of the culture in order to practice my faith fully. I understand I am a westerner, I have my own culture and ancestral history. I am proud to be a Gaidheal (Celt). I am descendant of the Cenél nEógain branch of the Uí Néill dynasty.
And as you will see below that the Celts had a varna system, thus if we are judged by birth I would be the equivalent of a Kshatriya. But in the end, whether we are Hindustani, Dravidian or Celtic, only our bodies are this. Once we die, our Jivas either obtain moksha or we still have karma and born again. This white body I inhabit will be burned and all ashes look the same. No one but the Lord will know in a 1000 years if I was a white westerner.
So in the end, it is the most complete spiritual path, that not only resonates within me, but is a part of my cultural roots (more later on this) and I need no other flashy things to keep me interested or drawn to it. Just the love of the Lord.
3. Since everyone can have a God of his/her own making (out of the 330 million already articulated), people find Hinduism to be a maze. A confusing amalgam of “stuff”. How do you make sense of it all?
Out of 330 million Gods, there is only one God, so says the vedas. This is where a lot of confusion for westerners stem. I have seen many people have trouble consolidating this idea due to preconceived notions.
As I mentioned before I spent two weeks searching for an answer to my awakening going in circles. Many westerners view hinduism as a singular religion with some variations and it is not until you immerse yourself that you realise how vast it really is. This is why I state on my blog that those new to Sanatana Dharma cannot learn it though the internet. All you will do is drive yourself mad. So my advice I give is:
Know God- who are you drawn to, when your Jiva is awakened it is a confusing time and I believe the Jiva is awakened based upon your karma, I believe that this process is due to the fact that our karma dictates that we do not have to awaken in the next life, but we had to get to a certain point in this life to see the truth, and when we are ready to see the truth the Lord comes to us and touches our hearts, thus awakening our jiva. A little hard to believe, but seems to makes sense once you think of it. And the manifestation of the Lord is the manifestation we need. For me it was Sri Rama, and once I started learning his story, it made sense, it was the teaching and example I needed at that time.
Second bit – What Makes Sense to You: The philosophy. If you are drawn to Vishnu or his manifestations I point people towards the Schools of Vedanta. To read about the various schools and find the one that makes sense to you. For me, as soon as I read about vishishtadvaita I knew it was for me.
Find a guide, make friends with Devotees: This is the most important once you decide what philosophy reflects your understanding of the world. Making friends with devotees of that particular tradition will fill you in on the deeper meanings of the philosophy, view of God and point you in the right direction. One of the hardest things starting out with little knowledge is putting what little knowledge you have into practice. How do you go from reading the Gita to serving the lord? Native Hindus know, they are brought up with the traditions and sadhana, we are not and need help to get to the feet of the Lord.
4. In your spiritual journey, what is it that you look forward to? If you had all the time, will, health and resources, what would you like to do?
Well beyond Moksha, the end goal, I’m not sure. I am still a child getting to know a Father that was missing most of my life. I look forward to the day that I can but understand a miniscule amount of the lord and how best to surrender to his lotus feet.
If I had the time and resources, I would do what I can to make the transition easier for those who are drawn to the Lord but have become overwhelmed. If I had the money I would make more core works available in english at an affordable price.
For example, how silly is it that I have had the panchasamskarams into the Sri Vaishnava sampradaya, and cannot find the divya prabandham in English. This collection of the devotional hymns and songs by Alvars that was organized by Sri Nathamuni is one of the cornerstone sacred texts of my Sampradaya and we westerners have no easy access to it in English. I would like to change this, as well as make other translated works by Ramanuja and others available.
5. In the world of evangelists and Islamists, how can and should Hinduism hold its own?
Native Hindu’s need to realize how beautiful and full their own spiritual culture is. They need to stop buying into the Victorian definition of “Ekam sat, viprah bahudhaa vadanti”. This pluralism is detrimental to the faith and causes nothing but misery and the Islamists and evangelists take advantage of this. We need to realize this was to encapsulate sattvic, Dharmic faiths only.
Islam and Christianity are not compatible to Dharmic thought. It breaks my heart that every Hindu is familier and use the term “Ishwar Allah Tere Naam” what absolute rubbish and this thinking is detrimental to the faith as no Islamist is saying this, I see all over the net islamists cursing Bhagavan. They do not buy into this so why must we? Especially the native hindus. This is one thing that, as a westerner, in the faith, that native hindus will spout out these detrimental phrases, yet turn around and shun us westerners who practice SD with full love and devotion at the lotus feet of the Lord.
We are not the enemy, we should be embraced as a ray of hope. For we understand the beauty that SD has to offer and have embraced it with all our hearts. So instead of native hindus repeating “Ishwar Allah Tere Naam” they need to stop this pluralistic bollocks with tamasic faiths and yell at the top of their lungs in adoration to the Lord “Jai Bhagavan!” “Jai Sri Krishna” “Jai Sita Ram” “Jai Shivai” or what ever. Be proud of the richness of your faith, but don’t be nationalistic about it. Bhagavan is the Lord of the Universe, not just of Bharata.
6. Given that you have come to Hinduism from “outside”, what would be your advise to Indian Hindus?
Well besides what I wrote above? I say that as the world plunges further into Kaliyuga that more and more westerners will be coming to SD. We must remember that Europe and India share the same family tree, linguistic roots and yes even religion. A fact that is now coming out of scholastics is that the Celts (modern day Irish, Scottish, Welsh, and Brittons from france) had a religion not too terribly different than Hinduism. There is not enough extant materials to totally revive the faith but there is more than enough evidence to say they had many similarities. There are many articles about this online and even Hinduism Today ran a story about it. We are not so different. We have common roots so it is only natural that we will return to our natural birthright so to speak. So as we progress into Kaliyuga we are drawn back to our original faith.
Within two generations our numbers have increased and yet we are still viewed by some as Avarnic mlecca dog-eaters, but the majority view us as novelties or a part of some passing fad. Yes there are many westerners that get discouraged, both by the vastness of SD, but also by the not so welcome looks and attitudes we sometimes meet with, though admittedly the looks are only from a select few.
As indians spread throughout the world and their culture becomes more and more present, we will see this number rise further, and I’m afraid it is no passing fad. I know western hindus that are still faithful 30+ years later having been introduced to SD via Iskcon or the multitude of Neo-hindu smarta groups that came.
Lastly, we westerners are not all avarnic, nor unclean nor untouchable. The Bhagavad gita states we are all born of the three gunas, not just within the borders of Bharata, but ALL are. And it is our inherent natures that makes us who we are. A westerner who take upon the mantle of a brahmin is just as pure as a native hindu brahmin, it says so right in our scriptures. I understand that in the past westerners have not had the best of intentions, but now I assure you all that we are just as capable to preserve the faith as any native.