BOOK REVIEW: Sadhus by Patrick Levy

Sadhus: Going Beyond the DreadlocksSadhus: Going Beyond the Dreadlocks by Patrick Levy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I got to the last couple chapters before I realized that this was a novel, and not a work of immersion journalism. I don’t mean to suggest that it wasn’t as compelling as I’d wish a work of fiction to be. On the contrary, it’s a fascinating look into a group of people (Sadhus / renunciants) who are little understood because they exist on the edges of society and can appear strange – if not a little scary – in their countercultural existence. The book reads like an authentic account of the Sadhu experience of a Frenchman who gives up his money and all but a few meager possessions to become a wandering ascetic under the tutelage a philosophically compatible Baba. (Until the fever dream ending instills a bit of surrealism and fourth-wall breaking.) The fact that the lead is demographically and a philosophically like the author, heightens the tendency to believe it’s nonfiction. [It’s quite possibly fictionalized autobiography to some degree, but I couldn’t say to what extent.]

Besides telling a story centered on a wandering Western ascetic in Northern India, the book does double duty in reflecting upon Hindu-Yogic-Tantric philosophy, particularly with respect to metaphysics. The lead character is neither religious nor a believer in the supernatural. Rather, he is (like many of us) in search of an almost defunct variety of a philosophy, the kind practiced by Socrates and some historic and present-day Buddhists, a variety that’s open to questioning and challenging all beliefs and assumptions as the means to better understand one’s world, a variety that recognizes the ubiquity of ignorance with respect to key questions of metaphysics. The story includes a number of Socratic method style conversations, as well as quotes from texts such as the “Avadhuta Gita” and “Ashtavakra Gita.”

I found this story to be compelling and informative, shining a light on a rarely-seen side of India.

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BOOK REVIEW: Jagannatha of Puri by Gayatri M. Dutt

Jagannatha of puriJagannatha of puri by Gayatri Madan Dutt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I recently visited Puri, and – seeing the little, big-eyed Jagannath idols and images all across Odisha – I was curious to learn about the mythology behind the Puri temple and its tripartite deity. This 30+ page comic may not be the most scholarly or detailed account, but it may be the quickest way to get the gist of the story. And the comic does present an intriguing morality tale that includes lessons of patience and unselfishness.

The story begins with a king who is obsessed with finding a fabled cave-shrine that he was directed to in a dream. The king sends his best men out in search of the cave as its whereabouts are unknown. In time, one of the men stumbles upon a village whose chieftain is said to regularly make secretive visits to the cave and its idol. And from there, the race is on to get the king to the cave. But the deity is elusive, and insists that its followers work together harmoniously.

It’s a clear and well-developed story. It blends intriguing trippy elements like time-travel and messages in dreams with traditional religious mythology.

If you’re looking for a brief explanation of the Puri temple and the Jagannaths, it’s worth giving this short comic a look.


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DAILY PHOTO: Konark Sun Temple as It Was and Is

Taken in December of 2021 in the Archeological Museum of Konark
Konark Surya Mandir [Note: the tower and three sub-temples collapsed.]

BOOK REVIEW: Why I Am a Hindu by Shashi Tharoor

Why I am a HinduWhy I am a Hindu by Shashi Tharoor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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There are two core premises in this book. First, Hinduism is non-dogmatic and can be almost whatever a given believer needs it to be, and, therefore, the objectionable elements associated with it [e.g. casteism] aren’t the religion’s fault. Second, Hindu nationalism represents a break from Hinduism’s historical proclivity for acceptance, which (circling back to the first point) results from the fact that believers aren’t forced to accept particular beliefs, thus making it easier to accept that believers from other sects have different perspectives.

Overall, the book’s first part does a fine job of showing how Hinduism has historically been accepting, non-dogmatic, and pluralistic; and the second part neatly describes the many ways in which the Hindu nationalist movement has abandoned those same values – ironically moving away from Hinduism’s open and agreeable nature to adopt the parochial and fanatical ways that they’ve decried in others.

As common among those wishing to glorify religions as faultless, Tharoor does some whitewashing. He argues that casteism (as with other faults) isn’t the religion’s problem, but society’s. However, Tharoor doesn’t make a convincing argument that the caste system could stick devoid of religion’s authority, or even that there’s a clear distinction being made.

When I reviewed Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd’s Why I’m Not a Hindu, I mentioned that I was reading these two diametrically titled books to get a clearer picture of the religion. What I found was that they’re both anti-Hindu nationalist works, though coming from very different perspectives. I did learn a great deal from reading each of the books, though they largely talk past each other as opposed to offering the head-to-head one would expect, given the opposing titles.

I would definitely recommend reading this book, with the proviso that one be cautious for instances of embellishing or glossing over, which – it seemed to me – did take place.


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BOOK REVIEW: Hindu Myths by A.L. Dallapiccola

Hindu MythsHindu Myths by Anna L. Dallapiccola
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Having moved to India, we picked up this book to try to wrap our heads around the vast Hindu pantheon and the myriad myths involving them. There are a huge number of tomes on the subject of Hindu mythology, but far fewer concise commentaries that look useful. We were always on the lookout for a book that would offer a sort of “Hindu Mythology for Dummies” –the quick down-low, if you will.

I can’t say that this book clarified the topic. However, I’m not sure any book could. Hindu mythology is a subject of enormous scope, while being defiant against reducibility. I was about to compare it to the challenge of writing a concise book for neophytes on quantum mechanics, but then I realized that such a book could probably be done much more effectively. For as strange as the world behaves at a subatomic scale, there’s a means to order the story and to simplify it in a way that leaves intact the gist. Along with dry descriptions of ordinary sounding events, one reads stories like that of the deity that popped out of another’s belly-button on giant lotus flower. That’s when the myths become hard to imagine–if one hasn’t been hitting the psilocybin.

That said, I did learn some interesting elements of myth from reading Dallapiccola’s book, and I think it has as effective an organizational scheme as one can hope for. After an Introduction that exposes the reader to Vedas, Puranas, and the Hindu trilogy (Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma), there are three chapters that revolve around creation, preservation, and destruction. [For those unfamiliar, those three deities map to those processes—Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer.]

After those three, there are another three chapters. Chapter four deals with myths about delusion, and in addition to describing Vishnu’s role in delusion (maya) it tells a couple of tales (the story of Madhu and Kaitabha, and the story of King Harishchandra.) Chapter 4 discusses the topic of grace and describes the birth of the Ganga, tells the tale of Arjuna and the Hunter, the story of Vishnu and Prahlada, and then offers a bit of insight into Shaiva saints, temple myths, and animal devotion. The last chapter is a brief overview of Hindu Mythology in modern times—especially its inclusion in popular culture.

There is a map (i.e. an India map showing major cities and crucial historical sites) and many pictures throughout the book. The pictures include photos of sculptures as well as reproductions of paintings that are of the deities and key mythical events. As far as ancillary features go, there is a half-page “Further Reading” section and the book is indexed.

This book is only 80 pages, and offers a quick overview. Whether it hits the most crucial material, I can’t rightly say. As I mentioned, there are some interesting tidbits in the book. I’d recommend it for someone looking for a quick overview. However, one should note that there are books that are more oriented toward story and less toward a scholarly level of precision in language that may be more useful for one—depending upon one’s needs.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Bhagavad-Gita Translated by Barbara Stoler Miller

The Bhagavad GitaThe Bhagavad Gita by Anonymous

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The Bhagavad-Gita is a philosophical poem, the title of which is translated as “Song of the Lord.” It’s often read as a stand-alone work, but it’s included in the sixth book of longest known epic poem, entitled the Mahabharata.

In The Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna teaches the warrior-prince Arjuna about sacred duty (dharma.) The setting is the battlefield at Kurukshetra as a war is about to get underway. Arjuna asks his charioteer, Krishna, to halt the vehicle between the opposing armies. Arjuna is struck with a crisis of conscience. He doesn’t want to fight and kill the men on the opposing side–some of whom are related to him by blood and others of whom are well-respected elders. Arjuna can see no virtue in the war.

Krishna, after briefly mocking what he describes as Arjuna’s newly developed cowardice, goes on to offer his explanation of why it is that Arjuna should fight. The first argument is that nobody really dies because consciousness is reborn. This makes sense if you believe in reincarnation… otherwise, not so much. A concise restatement of this argument is presented in the 11th teaching: “I am time grown old, creating world destruction, set in motion to annihilate worlds; even without you, all these warriors arrayed in hostile ranks will cease to exist. Therefore, arise and win glory! Conquer your foes and fulfill your kingship! They are already killed by me. Be just my instrument, the archer at my side!”

Another of Krishna’s argument is that if Arjuna fails to fulfill his duty he will be thought less of by others. This is an odd argument to make as Krishna makes a more compelling case for ridding oneself of ego, whereas this seems to be saying that one should put what others think of one above doing what one believes is right. That sounds a lot like succumbing to ego rather than eliminating. In the 12th teaching, in fact, Krishna tells us that the best of men are “Neutral to blame or praise…” This suggests that perhaps one shouldn’t be moved by what others will think of one.

At the core of Krishna’s argument is that one cannot escape the Karmic cycle by engaging any acts but those that are selfless. Like the reincarnation argument. One may find this logic compelling or not depending upon whether one believes in Karmic theory. Karma is the idea of cause and effect. If you do good, you’ll receive good effects and if you do bad you’ll experience bad effects. Ultimately, however, the goal is to break free of the Karmic cycle and, in theory, the only way to do that is to engage in acts that are selfless—hence doing your sacred duty. If your driver isn’t God, it’s not entirely clear how you know what your sacred duty is, at least not by way of this work. (Presumably, God talks to kings and princes, and kings and princes tell the unwashed masses what they are supposed to do. If you happened to have already done away with such a system—as most of the planet has—you may have trouble with this logic.) However, if one takes the lesson to be that one should not be consumed with personal gain when one acts, one has an argument of more general appeal.

Another argument is that devotion to God is all important, not a man’s actions in any absolutist sense. From the 9th teaching, “If he is devoted to me, even a violent criminal must be deemed a man of virtue, for his resolve is right.”

It should be noted that Krishna delivers a number of lessons beyond the need to comply with one’s dharma, and, in my opinion, many of these ancillary lessons are more compelling than Krishna’s explanation of why Arjuna must fight.

One such lesson is to concern oneself with the journey and not the destination. Krishna states it as such, “Be intent on action; not the fruits of action…” Furthermore, there are a great many teachings that will be familiar to Buddhists, such as the need for non-attachment and moderation.

The poem contains lessons of Samkhya (e.g. discussion of the three gunas) and Yoga. It describes concepts from the three original forms of yoga (predating yoga as a fitness activity by centuries): those being of action yoga (karma yoga), knowledge yoga (jnana yoga), and devotional yoga (bhakti yoga.) While The Bhagavad-Gita predates the formulation of eight limbs of yoga as described by Patanjali, it does address certain among them in varying detail. Early on, it speaks about pratyahara—withdrawal from the senses—in considerable detail. There are also references to pranayama (breath/energy control exercises) and most of the yama and niyama are listed among the virtues in the latter part of the teachings. Of course, samadhi (liberation / yoga’s 8th limb) is a central concept in this work.

While The Bhagavad-Gita remains widely cited and relied upon for guidance to this day, it’s not without its controversial elements. In the fourth teaching, Krishna explains how he created the caste system. Of course, Krishna might not have intended it to be the stain it became.

The Miller translation that I read has a few nice ancillary features. There is an introduction that offers background and context for those who have little knowledge of Indian history or mythology. There’s also a glossary that goes into detail about terms that are frequently used in the work. It’s not that there are Sanskrit words mixed into to the text. The glossary explains what the English words should be taken to mean in the context of the Hindu worldview.

What is most intriguing, however, is the afterword which is entitled, “Why Did Henry David Thoreau Take the Bhagavad-Gita to Walden Pond?” Of all the thinkers that have cited The Bhagavad-Gita, the use of Thoreau and Emerson as examples raises intriguing questions. The Thoreau of Civil Disobedience and the Emerson of Self-Reliance would seem to be as far from the message of The Bhagavad-Gita as possible. Krishna is telling Arjuna to ignore his conscience, and just do what God tells him to do—be a selfless instrument of destruction. Thoreau and Emerson both preached that one’s conscience should always be one’s ultimate guide. Thoreau went to jail because he refused to pay taxes that would support the war with Mexico. I suspect Krishna would say to Thoreau, “Hey, I’m throwing this war, and you’d damn well better do your part.” However, there are ideas in The Bhagavad-Gita that work with the American Transcendentalist philosophers. The idea of removing self-interest and egotism as a way to eliminate delusion before one makes one’s own decision is a consistent suggestion.

I have mixed feelings about The Bhagavad-Gita. Like many (most?) sources of religious doctrine, I think the central message of The Bhagavad-Gita is just another means by which to keep the masses under the control of an elite—and, specifically, fighting the wars of the royalty. However, I–like Thoreau and Emerson—also see a great deal of insight into how to be a better person in this poem.

I think The Bhagavad-Gita is worth a read, regardless of how you may ultimately feel about its message. It offers a concise summary of key ideas in Indian philosophy and psychology. It will give one a better understanding of the Indian worldview, and may teach you something about how to live in the process.

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DAILY PHOTO: Cambodian Ganesh

Taken in October of 2012 in Phnom Penh.

Taken in October of 2012 in Phnom Penh.

An estimated 95% of Cambodians are Buddhist, and Buddhism has been the dominant religion since the time of Jayavarman VII (i.e. the late 12th century.) This begs the question, why might one see a statue of a Hindu deity in a public space in Cambodia’s capital city?

 

If you’ve visited Angkor, you know that Hindu imagery abounds. This is because before Jayavarman, the Khmeris were Hindu. In a great early act of recycling, Vishnu sculptures became Buddha sculptures by decree. (In what is–as far as I know–a coincidence, many Hindus believe that Buddha [Siddhartha Gautama Buddha] was an avatar, or incarnation, of Vishnu.)

 

This still doesn’t explain why a relatively new sculpture of Ganesha would reside in present-day Phnom Penh (Phnom Penh is not as old as Angkor,  and by the time it was founded Buddhism was dominant.) Just as contemporary taxi and auto-rickshaw (tuk-tuk) drivers in India display Ganesha in appeal to this “remover of obstacles,” 10th century maritime traders did the same. This desire to court the favor of the remover of obstacles has continued on into the modern-day.

 

It’s an interesting commentary on how cultures never interact without getting some of their chocolate into the other culture’s peanut butter and vice versa (for those who have no idea what I’m talking about, that’s a reference to an old Reese’s commercial and not some dark coded message.)

DAILY PHOTO: Swami Vivekananda

Taken February 25, 2014 in Bangalore

Taken February 25, 2014 in Bangalore

This little park devoted to Swami Vivekananda is located on Bull Temple Road in Bangalore. Swami Vivekananda was a 19th century yogi and Hindu holy man. He was the chief disciple of Swami Ramakrishna, and is often credited with introducing yoga to the West.  This statue is located across the street from the Ramakrishna Math near Gandhi Bazaar (there is another Ramakrishna Math closer to Ulsoor Lake.)

The park has a series of quotes from the Swami in English and Kannada. The one above says, “Education is the manifestation of the perfection already in man.”