Thursday, 20 June 2013

Bhaav (devotion) to Bhaya (fear): Living in the Shelter and at the Mercy of Mother Ganga

The rains began as we sang the Hanuman Chalisa. Typically if it’s raining prior to the aarti, we set up under the overhead awning. However, on the 16th June, the skies were clear in the afternoon after morning showers, and the rain resumed only once we had all gathered on Ganga’s banks to sing Her glories and meditate next to Her waters.  “Jai Jai Jai Hanuman gosahin…kripa karaho gurudeva ki nyahin”…The rain came down in sheets as we clapped and sang euphorically. Pujya Swamiji’s eyes were closed and He led the chanting in ecstasy. It was as though we were being bathed from all sides by Mother Ganga.  She flowed below us and next to us, in Her riverbed, and rained upon us as Akaash Ganga from Heaven. “Gange Ma, Gange Ma, Gange ma,” we clapped and sang, moving in an out of a rapturous trance.

Post Aarti we returned to the ashram, soaked from the inside out with gratitude, love and devotion. The monsoons had started, slightly early even, bringing the nectar of rain to parched soil, parched mouths and parched spirits.
All evening the water rose and rose, and Akaash Ganga bestowed Her copious blessings upon us.

The next morning, we awoke to the unique and precious smell of Indian soil saturated by rain. I remember from my first days in India, noticing that the rain smelled here. There is an intoxicating fragrance of cool Himalayan showers upon hot Himalayan earth, that is so rich it inevitably pulls me out of my chair or off the floor to the nearest doorway where I can inhale its scent. I have found myself, year after year, fixed in doorways, half in and half out of the rain, filling my airways with this ambrosial nectar.

On the morning of the 17th June, the delicious fragrance filled the ashram; yet upon catching a glimpse of Mother Ganga I realized this was not just any rain storm. Within 24 hours the water level had risen more than fifteen feet and showed no signs of ceasing. Excitement, exuberance and awe filled my heart as I went out to offer my morning prayers to Ganga. Kneeling on wet marble as the rain bathed me from above, I lay my forehead upon the ghat and offered my usual prayer: “Oh Ma Ganga, wash through me, flow through me, cleanse me of anything and everything that is impure, that is not conducive to a life lived on Your banks, in Your seva. Wash over me, under me, around me and through me. Hold me in your waters forever.

Raising my head from the wet marble, I turned and walked up the ashram steps and into my office, as I’ve done every morning for nearly 2 decades.

Ganga is rising, Ganga is rising” was the ubiquitous chant all day in the ashram, but it was still filled with joy, reverence and awe.  “Mother Ganga is filling and filling.” Our hearts pounded with excitement and devotion.  Her glories, Her grandeur, Her divinity were filling more and more of the river bed, and more of and more of our hearts, our minds and our beings.

Evening aarti had to take place, for the first time ever, in the street next to the ghat. Ganga’s waters had risen up onto the top of the ghat, and we’d locked the gates to ensure no one wandered dangerously close. Hands folded in prayer, we performed aarti to Her now raging glory as She paid no heed to anything that thwarted Her flow -- trees, cars, buildings – the animate, the inanimate, the large, the small.   She carried it all in Her waters, seizing the “aviral” flow  environmentalists had been demanding.  

No conference, no meeting, no agreement, no anshan, contract or commission could now deprive Her of Her right to flow, and overflow, through Her natural river bed, tearing by the root and the foundation anything that stood in Her way.  All the signs and symbols of our “progress,” of man’s triumph over nature – the highways, the cars, the trucks, the buildings precariously defiant on mountain top ledges – with one wave of Her hand, the illusion was shattered, and the Truth of Nature’s power was laid bare, undeniable, non-negotiable,  for all to behold and mourn.

As the sun set beyond Mother Ganga’s turbulent waters, Her waves crashing now like a storm at sea, a moment arose in which the surge of bhaav (devotion) -- rising, rising, rising, bhaav -- reached its peak and was transformed, almost imperceptibly, into a swell of bhaya (fear).   

“Oh Ma Ganga,” hearts now beating rapidly in apprehension rather than awe, voices trembling with more fear than faith, we prayed:  “Please calm Your tumultuous flow. Please return to your normal level and normal path. Please allow us to hold on, for a brief time more, to our illusion of living in control of nature. Permit us please, oh Mother Ganga, to hold onto our delusion of invincibility, our megalomania, our blind race for development. Please Mother Ganga, allow the curtain of illusion to once again drop over our eyes so that we may not be forced to see, to realize and recognize Your True nature as a river with rights, as a Goddess who will -- as a last resort -- wrest those rights from the hands Her captors.”

“Mother Ganga, the giver of life, the giver of liberation, whom we have abused, used, disregarded, neglected and turned into a commodity in the name of progress and development, please have mercy upon us, your children who have promised time and again to protect you and preserve you, and yet who time and again have neglected to do so.” 

But, our chances had been used up. Year after year in different ways, Ganga had tried to warn us – first Uttarakashi, then Rudra Prayag, year after year breaking bridges, overflowing banks, demolishing buildings, roads and lives.  Voiceless, She had used every means in Her hands to warn us, to make us understand.  Yet, blinded by our own agenda, foolish in our  wisdom-less knowledge, reckless and deluded, we ignored Her message.   We have deforested Her hillsides, blasted Her fragile, young, soft mountains with dynamite, encroached further and further upon Her banks, dammed and diverted Her flow, dragged Her helpless tributaries out of their natural beds into steel tunnels, built non-porous structures in the riverbed, impeding the natural flow of water, polluted the air, causing excess heat and carbon dioxide to melt Her glaciers.  We have pushed Her, pulled her, taunted Her and tried to tame Her. We have used her, abused Her and then, as though redemption were so simple, taken our token dupkis (baths/dips) in Her water during auspicious positions of the planets and moon.  “Jai Gange” we chant as we bob in and out of Her waters, feeling redeemed of our sins against She to whom we turn for liberation, redemption, and purity.

Unfortunately the laws of the Shristi (creation) are not so simple. Yes, Ganga is a Goddess. Yes, Ganga is the Mother. But the divine Creator has laid down laws of nature for the Creation – divine, mortal, tangible, intangible, organic and inorganic – to follow. One may chant “He Bhagawan” or “Jai Hanuman” or pray to “Vayu devta” as one jumps off the top of a tall building, but one’s body will still plummet to the ground, for the law of gravity is non-negotiable.  

Whatever name we use for the Divine, He/She is, of course, omnipotent and infinite. Yet, God has created laws of nature which do not bend.   These laws were not meant to punish us. Rather, in His infinite compassion and love, God created these laws to nurture and nourish us.  The falling leaves of autumn, packed under the snow of winter create the fertile soil for spring’s blossoms. Each aspect of nature has its purpose, its life-giving properties. There is a reason we say “Mother Nature.” Nature provides for us, creates us and sustains us as a divine mother….but, in accordance with her own laws. If we, defiantly and with blatant disregard, disobey these laws, we will reap the consequences. A good man, a well-intentioned man, a pious man, will plummet to earth as fast as a villain if they jump together off the Empire State building. The laws of nature apply equally to all –the pious and the profane.  Singing Ganga’s glories or taking dupkis in Her waters on auspicious occasions does not render us immune to the laws of Mother Nature.  That which we sow, so shall we reap. If we sow unchecked and illegal construction, vision-less development, deceptive politics and pockets lined with commissions….if we sow consumerism as the highest good, we shall reap the fruits of destruction and devastation.

Fortunately, Mother Ganga and Mother Nature are forgiving. Eventually, over the next several months, the rains will dissipate, the flood waters will recede, the final rites will be performed for those who have perished, the soaked soil which has rushed hundreds or thousands of meters downstream will dry and some semblance of normalcy will return to the Char Dham valleys. That is our chance. Perhaps our last chance. When we make plans for the reconstruction, restoration and rehabilitation of the Uttarakahand mountain villages, what vision of development will we use? What natural laws will we obey? Which will we defy? What seeds for the future will we sow?  Today we are eating the very bitter fruit of the seeds we’ve planted for the last few decades.  What seeds will we plant today for the fruit of tomorrow?

Saturday, 4 May 2013

The Call of the Sacred Snan – Kumbha Mela

Kumbha Mela is, according to spiritual history and culture, the celebration of the nectar of immortality.   Tens of millions of pilgrims flock from every corner of Earth to come spend days or weeks or even nearly two months living in the sacred riverbed of the Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati.  Satsang, darshan and discourses with revered saints, naked naga babas, renowned gurus of every sampradhaya are bonuses.  That which reaches inside their hearts, grabs hold of them across the globe and pulls them hundreds or thousands of miles from their home to this makeshift tent city is the call of the snan, a bath in the holy Sangam of the sacred triveni, a bath in the nectar of immortality.

Spiritual history and literature tell us that if one is to have a bath at the auspicious time of perfect planetary alignment, if the planets, sun and moon are aligned as they were when drops of sacred amrit spilled upon the Earth, then one may attain the boon of immortality.   It was this boon for which the forces of good and the forces of evil churned the ocean, and the resulting amrit is what spilled upon the Earth in the four Kumbha locations – Allahabad, Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain.  However, no one simply believes that a bath in the confluence of rivers will keep the cells of their body from dying and sloughing or will maintain their physical beings eternally and exempt them from the laws of nature.

Rather, that sacred gift, that boon of immortality for which we long, seek and flock, is to connect – even momentarily – with the true nature of the Self, to catch even a glimpse of the real, divine and eternal nature of one’s own being.  In the holy land of the Kumbha, in the presence of enlightened masters and devoted pilgrims, having walked away from our lives of comfort and convenience, at the appointed hour, under a moon which is full or new or somewhere in between, if we immerse not only our bodies but our very selves in that rushing water, we receive a priceless gift.  We are given an experience, an awareness and a knowing of the truth of who we are.  We experience our own immortality.  Our scriptures, commentaries and inspirational literature tell us that we are not our bodies; our gurus remind us; we may know on some level.  However, to believe something and to experience it are two different phenomena.  The Kumbha provides the true experience and deep awareness that stay with us forever, changing the very nature of who we think we are, how we live and how we relate in the world.

This experience is what so many foreigners come to India in search of, and which many find, even at times and places other than the Kumbha.  In many ways, the Kumbha is the distillation and crystallization of India.   That which you experience in India, you experience in a concentrated form at the Kumbha! It is, in my opinion, simultaneously, the worst and the best of India. Kumbha embodies and epitomizes the pervasive sense of the sacred which one finds while traveling through traditional, spiritual India and which has touched and transformed countless Indians and foreigners alike.  And, the Kumbha is also the quintessence of that which makes India difficult for so many foreigners.  It is loud, incredibly so, with nearly twenty-four-hour-a-day cacophony. Bhajans, kirtan, spiritual lectures and public service announcements vie for airtime on the speakers hung every thirty or forty feet.  It is dirty and dusty, because the entire Mela is erected on sand which is the sacred river bed of Ganga and Yamuna throughout much of the year.  It is crowded. Estimates range from 80 million to 100 million pilgrims flocking from every corner of the country and the world.  To me as a foreigner having been blessed to live the past sixteen years in India, that is the worst of India -- its noise, its dirt and dust and its ubiquitous crowds. 

However, these pale in comparison to the best of India, which is also the best of Kumbha.  Imagine -- wave after wave of humanity, every color, every size, speaking every language, pouring into the Mela out of every possible vehicle ranging from a bullock cart to a private jet. And for what? There is no sporting event here where one can root enthusiastically for one's home team and then pop champagne bottles at the victory.  There is no rock concert where one might be able to touch the shirttails of pop stars and sing along to one's favorite tunes.  There is no lottery with a million-dollar (or several crore) jackpot.  There is no theme park with slides and rides to make our hair stand on end and our children shout with glee. 

No, it is not the normal attractions that draw more people than any other event in the history of the world.  It is, quite simply, the faith, the beautiful, sacred, uniquely Indian faith that to have a bath in the holy waters of the Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati at this auspicious time might bring one closer to that ultimate goal of deep spiritual union, awareness and bliss.  It is the belief, the unassailable, ardent belief that one will be free of sins from lifetimes past, that one will come closer to the Divine, awaken spiritually and perhaps even attain enlightenment. No, it is not sports stars or rock stars or dollars or rupees that lure people to the Kumbha.  It is not glamour or prestige or the chance to rub elbows with celebrities.  It is the call of the holy waters promising divine union and liberation. It is the presence of the holy saints, the possibility of their darshan, their blessings and their satsang. It is the astrological significance of bathing, praying and meditating on certain days in this sacred riverbed.  It is the readiness, nay the eagerness, with which -- by the tens of millions -- Indians abandon the comfort, convenience and luxury of their own lives and lifestyles to come and sleep in tents built on the dirt, their eyes brimming with tears of devotion and gratitude. 

India is a land that feeds first and eats second, and the Kumbha is the crystallization of this cultural tenet. Wherever you go, from one end of the Kumbha to the other, regardless of sampradaya or parampara, there is always food for all. Camp after camp feeds thousands each day, their own devotees, pilgrims and sevaks frying batch after batch of puris before sunrise. 

For us, this Kumbha was a special opportunity to launch a Green Kumbha Initiative. Pujya Swamiji (Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji, President of Parmarth Niketan Rishikesh and Founder of Ganga Action Parivar) has been planning for a “Green Kumbha, Green Prayag” for many years, and therefore the focus of the Kumbha was not only cleansing of our past sins and purification of our minds, but a true cleansing of the banks and waters of the Ganga and Yamuna.  Whoever came through our Ganga Action Parivar camp – including Bollywood celebrities, state and central government politicians, billionaire industrialists, foreign professionals, Harvard students and faculty, Western yoga students and more – took part not only in yajna, aarti, satsang and meditation. They also took part in trash cleanups.  Led by Pujya Swamiji and devotees costumed as trees, mountains and holy rivers, we picked up trash, shoveled dirt over open defecation, installed water filtration systems, put up trash cans and led huge parades in the name of “Green Kumbha, Green Prayag, Green India, Green Century.”  The initiative was not just about cleaning the grounds of the Sangam. It was about initiating thought and action toward a truly clean and green India.  (see for more details).

However, Green Kumbha did not mean facility-less Kumbha.  In fact, we had some news channels come through our camp requesting to video the rooms we built with eco-friendly bamboo and jute, the attached bathrooms, the flush toilets, the running water and electricity.  "Kumbha mein kya vyavastha hai," was their theme and they were effusively impressed with the arrangements at our camp. However, despite the impressiveness of bringing running water and electricity to dry riverbeds, ultimately Kumbha is not about vyavastha.  Kumbha is about aastha.  It is not the flush toilets or the running water or the carpeted floors that draw people from every corner of the globe.   It is  not the smoothly running traffic or the miracle of infrastructure that the state and local governments were miraculously able to implement. These arrangements were merely a  bonus, an extra added bit of unexpected comfort.  

Yes, as people said, Kumbha was a miracle of vyavastha.  To erect a city the size of New York, Paris and London combined in under sixty days is, of course, a miracle and one whose credit goes to the government machinery.  However, the true miracle is one not of vyavastha but of aastha. You can set up makeshift roads, bring water and run electrical lines anywhere in the world and that does not mean people will come.  The miracle in Kumbh is the aastha, the faith, that reaches deep within people's beings, grabs hold of their hearts and pulls them -- sometimes thousands of miles -- from the material comfort of their home to the spiritual comfort of the Mela. It is the miracle of aastha that fills every tent, every plywood-room, every dirt or aluminum road with people, people who have come to find the true meaning of their lives on Earth.

Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati
Parmarth Niketan, Rishikesh
Ganga Action Parivar

Swami Vivekananda - A Full Resurgence – The Value of Values

Swami Vivekananda cast India’s cultural heritage into international spotlight when he began his speech at the Parliament of World Religions with the phrase, “My sisters and brothers of America.”  As commonplace as it seems to Indians to begin a talk with “bhaio aur beno,” the idea of referring to an auditorium full of strangers as family was, for many Americans, surprising and their first glimpse of traditional Indian culture.  Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam is one of the most basic tenets of Indian spiritual and cultural heritage.  The world is a family.  This message is one that is needed as critically today, perhaps even more critically, as when he spoke in Chicago 120 years ago.  Today, like never before, we are faced with a critical divide between those who have and those who have-not, those who are growing plumper each year and those who are helplessly watching their children succumb to the perils of malnutrition, those with summer homes, winter homes and weekend homes, and those who cower in doorways to escape the beating rain and sleet.   We produce enough food to feed 10 billion people a day, yet tens of thousands of children die each day of starvation while others feast themselves to diabetes and heart disease.  Now, as never before, the world needs this message that we are all family.  No one in a family would even conceive of grabbing all the chapatis laid out for dinner. Instinctively we understand that every family member is entitled to his/her fair share.  Sacrifice for each other’s wellbeing comes naturally.  

Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam
            Swami Vivekananda’s reference to the people of America as his “sisters and brothers” was not merely profound at the time; rather it is a call that we must hear today.  But, of course, not only are the Americans our sisters and brothers.  Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam has no discrimination, does not play favorites and has no hierarchy.  Can we extend the feeling of family to the impoverished and malnourished of India, Africa, Asia and the rest of the world? Can we extend the arms of our family to the suicidal farmers killing themselves over desiccated fields and yieldless harvests? Can we truly feel the same Oneness, the same sense of family, for those of different religions, different countries, different castes and different colors?
            Swami Vivekananda emphasized that the reason for India’s downfall (as he saw it) lay in India’s neglect of the masses.  No family can be truly successful on all levels if its members are hungry, or cold, or homeless or ailing without means for treatment.  If India is going to achieve a full resurgence of greatness and prosperity on all fronts, it cannot do so while a huge percentage of its own population lives without toilets, running water, basic education and primary health care.
Resurgent India is not only about a financial resurgence; it not only refers to a renewal of India’s place as a leader of the developing and developed world.  Rather, if India is going to be reborn into Her true state of glory, it requires a rekindling of Her fundamental and essential values and tenets.  Resurgent India requires not just that we connect on facebook and twitter, not just that we count our global presence in the number of "friends" or "followers" we have, but that we truly and deeply take the world into our heart.   Can their pain be our pain? Can their hunger be our hunger? Can their anguish be our anguish? Can we truly, selflessly, lovingly make choices and sacrifices for them as we would for our own family members? Only when the values, ethics and sanskaras of Bharitya sanskriti are re-infused with their cultural significance can India truly see a resurgence.

Women as Divine

Additionally, it is important to note that Swami Vivekananda did not say “My brothers and sisters of America.” Rather he said, “My sisters and brothers of America.” The distinction is minor and yet profound, particularly as India faces a time of singular darkness and despair regarding women’s rights and protection.  This emphasis, actually, on the feminine is an inherent part of traditional Indian culture.  Our mantras chant, “Twameva Mata, Cha Pita Twameva….” First mother, then father.  Manu declared and our scriptures remind us that “Where women are adored, there the Gods are pleased.”       So neither is this tenet of women’s empowerment, women’s rights and women’s significance new today, nor was it new when Swami Vivekananda based his remarks according to this cultural niyam. So, women’s rights are not something that need to be instituted in India, but rather something that has to be re-instituted. That respect, reverence and love for women not as objects of desire but as manifestations of the Divine Feminine is part and parcel of India’s cultural and spiritual heritage.  Without it, as we are seeing in the streets of India today, no resurgence will be successful.

India as Tirth
A story is told of Swami Vivekananda’s trip to America and UK, spanning approximately four years from 1893 – 1897. As he was readying to depart from London for India, one of his British friends asked him, Swamiji how do you like your motherland now after four years’ experience of the luxurious, glorious, powerful West?” Swamiji replied: “India I loved before I came away. Now the very dust of India has become holy to me, the very air is now to me holy; India is now the holy land, the place of pilgrimage, the Tirtha!”  Today, there is a clamouring among most Indians to go abroad – to travel, to study, to work and to live.  I cannot tell you the number of times someone -- having acquired immeasurable punya over lifetimes leading to a birth on the banks of Ganga -- asks me: “Please aap mere liye Amreeka mein kooch kara dijiye, meri naukri lagwa dijiye. Kooch bhi karo, muje Amreeka bhijwa do bus.”  The request always brings tears to my eyes and yet is indicative of much of what needs to “resurge” in India.
There has been, over the last several decades, a shift of focus and a shift in our values. To Swami Vivekananda, sure the roads, the infrastructure and other aspects of comfort, convenience, efficiency and even luxury were better and more available in the West, just as they are today. However, to him, those were not the important aspects of life, nor were they what determined his choice of country in which to live.  Hence he longed to return to Mother India where he could bathe in Her culture, Her people, Her very soil, in the wind that blows across Her land.  There is a magic here in India, a divine magic that makes even squalor sacred. That does not, of course, condone squalor but it is simply to say that the feeling of sacredness is pervasive – in the huts and in the mandirs. 
There are many reasons for this of course, with the most important being India’s inherent holiness. However, I believe that the divinity of Her very soil is enhanced by a culture in which spirituality, sanskaras and connection to God are the most important aspects of life.  That is the Bharatiya Sanskriti we speak about. However, today the focus seems to be much more on acquiring and attaining wealth, prestige, status and possessions.
When I first came to India one of the most remarkable aspects to me of the culture and the country was the peace on people's faces -- the rich, the poor, the old, the young, the homeless, the hungry, the educated and the illiterate. It was as though one's lot in life was simply part of the "package deal" of human birth. It had very little connection to one's sense of self or self-worth.  Even those who lived far below western standards of abject poverty were eager to share. "Please come home for dinner," I heard countless times from people who could not even afford to feed their own families let alone an extra mouth.  In the nearly two decades I’ve lived here, much has changed. Perhaps bombarded by Western and Westernized serials, movies, fashion magazines and cultural indoctrination, the values and focus in India seem to have shifted.  The "new India" has started judging its self worth much like the West does -- by the balance in their bank account, the number of shopping bags on their arms, the brand of sunglasses upon their faces and the size of their waists.  There is a feverish clamoring for more and more, better and better, newer and newer. India has become a country where there are nearly twice as many mobile phones as toilets.
How many Indians today are just as eager to return home to India after a few years abroad? If India is going to be resurgent we have to cultivate that same level of discrimination that Swamiji had – sure he was able to recognize the comfort and convenience of the West, and yet he was able to recognize that there is something much more valuable than that.  Hence he longed to return home to the “Tirth” of India.
A Resurgent India needs a return to the values espoused by Swami Vivekananda.  His call for greatness is a greatness deeper than the distance our missiles can travel or the value of our GNP.  It is a greatness that penetrates the core of each Indian, that makes him/her grounded, anchored, centered and rooted in an unbreakable, unshakeable connection to the Divine, to the country, to Her soil and to each other.

Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati
Parmarth Niketan, Rishikesh

Sunday, 12 August 2012

What is Spirituality?

The term “spirituality” is used quite vaguely these days to refer to anything ranging from those who subscribe to an eclectic mix of practices, traditions and beliefs, to those who may agree with the foundational aspects of a religion while not adhering to all the rituals, to those who believe in a divine power without necessarily subscribing to a particular religion at all. The word is also used frequently in contrast to religion. “I am not so religious,” we hear people say. “But I’m very spiritual.” 

Ultimately, spirituality literally means pertaining to the spirit, of the spirit, in relation to spirit. It is not the opposite or antithesis of religion, but rather it is the opposite of materialism. To be spiritual, in essence, is to live one’s life focused on the intangible, omnipresent, pervasive spirit rather than on tangible objects with distinct borders and boundaries.  To be spiritual, to be “of the spirit,” means to focus on that which connects us to each other rather than that which separates us.

A materialist would say, “I end at the point where my skin ends and the air begins.” To the materialist there is a distinct starting and ending point for the self.  For example: “Here is cushion. Here is self sitting on cushion. Here is loved one sitting next to self.”  There are distinct beginning and ending points for each of these.  A materialist could show you clearly where the cushion ends and the self begins, where the self ends and the air begins, where the air ends and the loved one begins.

A spiritualist, however, understands that that which pervades the cushion, the self, the air and the loved one is the same spirit. There is no distinct point of beginning or ending or boundary or border.  Sure, the vessels through which the Spirit flows may vary, but the Spirit is one. So, spirituality is a practice, a lifestyle, a commitment to the spirit, to that which unites us and connects us. 

Once I realize that I am one with Spirit, I realize that I am one with you, for that same Spirit flows through you just as it flows through me.   Theoretically, that is actually what religion should do as well – connect us to the omnipresent, all-pervasive Divine and thereby connect us to all of Creation. Tragically, however, in many cases the institution of religion has gone awry.  Yet, if religion could be distilled back to its essence, to its ultimate purpose, it too would focus on connecting people to God. God, of course, does not play favorites and does not discriminate. So, to be connected with God is to be connected with each other.

This concept of unity, of oneness with the Divine and therefore with all of creation is an intrinsic part of Indian culture and spiritual philosophy.  The word “yoga” used so ubiquitously, literally means union. Today, unfortunately we seem to have misinterpreted it to mean a union of my head to my knee or union of my palms to the floor, but essentially it is a union of the self to the Divine.  Whichever of the numerous paths of yoga one may choose, the ultimate goal is to deeply and experientially realize that Union. 

In today’s world, our illusion of separateness is killing us – as individuals and as nations.  Our individual feeling of disconnection from God and from all of Creation leads us to feel alone, isolated, ungrounded and uncentered. Rates of depression and anxiety are skyrocketing across the world even though each year we invent more, accomplish more, eradicate more diseases ,and more and more people have financial stability.  Internally, we long for deep connection.  Isolation – whether real or imagined – is one of the greatest sources of misery.  Similarly, as nations and as cultures, our illusion of separateness from each other permits us to wreak the greatest pain and destruction upon each other. That violence which we could not conceive of doing to a family member or neighbor, we sit back and watch as it is done to people of other countries, cultures and races. We feel separate from them. They are not us. They are outside the border and boundary we have drawn of our own Self.   Further, our disconnection from Mother Earth enables us to exploit her as a commodity, to ravage and pillage her forests, decimate her oceans,  turn her rivers into sewers killing all life therein, and render her lush mountains bald with wanton disregard. 

The Isha Upanishad tells us Isha vasyam idam sarvam. Everything in the universe is pervaded by the Divine.  There is no place He does not exist.  There is no person, no living being and even no inanimate object from which He is absent.  The Divine Presence pervades every cell of my being just as it pervades every cell of you and every cell of him, of her, and of everything in this universe. We are not separate. We cannot possibly be separate. That spirit, that divine spirit that flows in and through each of us, from which each of us is made, is One.  To live our lives with awareness of that Oneness, with consciousness of that Oneness, that is spirituality.

Then, when we become truly “spiritual,” when we become focused on and connected to spirit, we realize that we are not separate from anyone’s joy and we are not separate from anyone’s pain.  I am connected to the starving child trying to sleep with pangs of anguish in his belly. I am connected to the woman dying in childbirth due to lack of medical care.  I am connected to every animal tortured and slaughtered.   I am connected to every tree being felled, every river being polluted, and every fish suffocating in the fisherman’s net.

To be truly spiritual requires one to live with an awareness of spirit, and that spirit is all-pervasive. It leaves nothing and no one out.  If I am One with spirit, then by definition I am One with you.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Development - In what direction?

As his belly rises with each deep, slow breath, his frayed undershirt exposes the bare skin underneath – brown, of course, due to genetics, but browned even more deeply from a life in the sun. The thin plastic chair upon which he sits bends with his weight as he sinks deeper into afternoon slumber. His feet rest upon a bare wooden bed-frame where  his customers sit during his “open” hours.  His head hangs loosely yet stably above his broad shoulders and from his slightly open mouth escape snores I can hear in my car, as I pass slowly through the village.  Around him, young children scamper about, free from the morning hours in school, starched uniforms carefully removed to be ready for tomorrow, shoes placed neatly by the door frame in which a door should exist but doesn’t. In undershirts, short pants and bare feet they frolic about, entertained now by a branch, now by an old tire, now by throwing rocks at the mango tree to coax fresh mangoes to the ground.  Soon they will have to utilize the last hours of daylight to complete their homework, but for now they exuberantly chase a frayed rubber tire down the dirt road, at the end of which they will sit and suck mango juice out of freshly fallen fruit.  As the afternoon sun softens and shadows begin to fall upon the road, women sweep the porches of the shops and adjacent homes, getting ready for evening customers who will come to purchase a handful of rice, a few cups of flour or some coconut oil for their hair.

At the end of the dirt road, our car turns right and the village disappears.  Narrow, unpaved streets lined with brick and mud homes, shops carrying basic necessities, stalls of fresh fruit and vegetables, dozing men and scampering children give way to “Developed India.”  Now the roads are covered with smooth black asphalt, reflecting the afternoon sun back into our eyes.  There are different lanes for each direction, separated by a wide divider, in which lush greenery and flowering plants in hues of pink and purple stand out in sharp contrast to the black of the roads.

Multi-storied modern buildings line the roads, each with its own parking lot and separate, electronic entry gate. On a corner an enormous complex is topped with a sign saying Shopping Mall and the names of foreign stores are illuminated on the concrete wall -- myriad franchises of clothing, jewelry and shoe companies from America, Italy and England.  Next to the mall, the golden arches of McDonalds shine brightly in the soot filled sky.   Both sides of the road are peppered with signs for sophisticated bars and restaurants, reminiscent of those on the Champs Elysee, Sloane street or Sunset Boulevard.  

The offices, bars, restaurants and shopping malls are dwarfed, however, by the structures driving the rapid development.  Factory after factory complex stretches out toward the horizon in every direction except backwards. Backwards -- due West -- lie the villages, and beyond that the forest from which the village children eat fresh mangos, the branches of trees serving as fuel for their evening meal.

Ahead --  to the North, South and East -- are nothing but factories. Smokestack after smokestack spews out hot black air. Soon, the newly painted cream colored walls of the high rise buildings will be black. Soon, only the golden arches of McDonalds, where they fry up the mother cow and serve her between slices of bread with a side of tomatoes, will be visible in the thick black air.

Skinny, darkly tanned young men, perhaps the sons of snoozing villagers, ride bicycles in the road, on the back of which are tied heavy air conditioning units and stacks of fashionable plastic chairs.  They dart between cars, their backs wet with perspiration, their loads twice the height of the bike and more than ten times the weight.

Young men and women rush in and out of the cars parked in the lots. They are dressed in Western business attire – suits and ties for the men, long skirts and tops (or an occasional tailored salwar kameez) for the women.  They carry briefcases and clipboards. Over the women’s shoulders hang heavy purses bearing designer names.  They buzz about, from the cars into the doors of the offices, out of the office doors, into the cars, up to the road to McDonalds or the bar, perhaps to the shopping mall, accidentally bumping shoulders with each other on paved sidewalks.  Conversations are frenetic; hands wave in every direction illustrating points of great importance, toes tap in high heels or designer loafers as they wait for each other to finish a sentence.  As they cross the road, rushing from one meeting to another, or from their parked car to an office, the afternoon sun casts shadows in the wrinkles on their faces.  Their grimaces have become etched into the very fabric of their skin.  Occasionally they cover their mouths with silk handkerchiefs as they cough and wheeze in the unbridled pollution. They smile, perhaps, in the evenings over a beer or bottle of wine.

This, the row after row of factories, toxins gushing into the air, multi-storied buildings with central air conditioning, drive-thru McDonalds, restaurants where one can leisurely sip a beer or wine or whisky with dinner, this is “Developed India.”  Women in short skirts and heels, men in black suits on a summer day,  sky-high stacks of plastic chairs, take-away Styrofoam containers, block-length shopping malls,  product after product to quench people’s thirst for happiness.  Surely, at the end of a particularly busy day or week or month, these women and men will rush into the toy store to buy a new Sony Play-station for their children, assuaging their ephemeral regret at not having time to spend at home.  Their children will sit in front of a computer screen, playstation controls in one hand, bag of potato chips in the other and numb their longing for a hug.

What is development? What is progress? By what specific measures do we say that we have moved “forward” from the peacefully dozing grocer? Are the children with the playstation, who will inevitably clamor for newer and newer models, truly more “privileged” than those who spend the afternoon happily chasing a car tire down the dirt road or knocking mangoes out of trees?  Has chopping down the forest to build factories that produce not only commercial products but also toxic waste, pollution, cancer and global warming really benefited our country?  When we say “development,” what exactly is it that we have “developed?” Immunity to thick black air pollution until it turns cancerous in our lungs?  Dependency upon goods packaged in inordinate amounts of plastic?  Ignorance of the futility of trying to fill inner emptiness with material possessions? Blindness to the violence inherent in the production of meat? Distance between us and our families, between us and God, between us and our true Selves?  What, really, have we developed?

When I first came to India one of the most remarkable aspects to me of the culture and the country was the peace on people's faces -- the rich, the poor, the old, the young, the homeless, the hungry, the educated and the illiterate. It was as though one's lot in life was simply part of the "package deal" of human birth. It had very little connection to one's sense of self or self-worth.  Even those who lived far below western standards of abject poverty were eager to share. "Please come home for dinner," I heard countless times from people who could not even afford to feed their own families let alone an extra mouth.  In fifteen years, much has shifted. Perhaps bombarded by Western and Westernized serials, movies, fashion magazines and cultural indoctrination, the "new India" has started judging its self worth much like the West does -- by the balance in their bank account, the number of shopping bags on their arms, the brand of sunglasses upon their faces and the size of their waists.  There is a feverish clamoring for more and more, better and better, newer and newer. India has become a country where there are nearly twice as many mobile phones as toilets.

India's image of itself has also shifted significantly.  Where emphasis previously had been on development and production of intelligence, of knowledge, of science and technology, now it has shifted to development and production of marketable goods. Not goods that India is traditionally famous for -- not silk, woven fabrics, artwork, Ayurvedic medicines, herbs and spices, but generic goods, goods that are a symbol of the rapidly burgeoning middle class -- motorcycles, tires, plastic containers, mobiles, leather handbags.  

An inevitable and inextricable part of production is waste.  There is a direct, linear relationship between the volume of goods produced by a factory and the volume of waste cast by that factory into local rivers, lakes and groundwater or spewed into the air.   As India rushes exuberantly toward unbridled consumerism, she must be prepared for a rapid devastation of her air and water quality. This tragic prophecy is already a fact.  More than two-thirds of people living in the eastern Ganga River Basin suffer from water borne illnesses.  More than three million people die annually as a direct result of the toxic, commercial, industrial and wastewater pollutants that are dumped -- more than 1.3 billion liters PER DAY -- into Her waters.  As we clamor for more and more, newer and newer, as we continue to associate our self worth with the knick-knacks on our counters, as we employ TVs and computers as baby-sitters, we are rendering our natural environment unliveable.

“It’s the government’s fault,” people shout out of habit. “The administration has already allocated billions of rupees to the Clean Up Ganga program. What has happened to it?”  However, the problem is not nearly as simple as it may seem. Basic infrastructural issues such as sewage, solid waste, and garbage collection should certainly be taken care of by local and state municipalities. However, we all have a serious role to play as well – both in the problem and the solution. While untreated sewage cascades from drains and gutters into Ganga, this is far from the only problem She faces.  The hundreds of factories lining Her banks produce 260 million liters of toxic waste per day that fill Her waters, poisoning not only the fish and dolphins that live in Her waters, but also the 450 million Indians who depend upon these waters for their very lives – their water for drinking, bathing, cooking and agriculture.  The commercial and industrial effluents are suffocating the sacred river, squeezing the life out of Her waters and all species which inhabit them. 

Every new product we purchase, every gram of plastic packaging, our leather car seats, purses and shoes produced in these factories has a direct impact on the levels of toxins in Ganga and therefore upon the health of our brothers and sisters who live downstream.  The exorbitant amount of electricity required to run the factories at warp-speed, at all hours of the day and night, necessitates construction of dams on the river. These dams, functioning as “Run-of-the-River” projects, diverting water out of the riverbed, further diminish the volume of water available to dilute the toxins. It is a tragic lose-lose situation, a cycle of violence --- violence to Ganga and violence to those whose lives depend upon Her waters being clean and free-flowing. 

Development is necessary. One cannot move backwards in time. Children raised on a Playstation should not be forced to try to amuse themselves with a tire.   Progress in the fields of education, technology, science and manufacturing are fabulous boons for any society and particularly Indian society which was oppressed for so many years prior to Independence.  However, freedom should not be interpreted as a license for decadence or gluttony at the expense of others.  As tempting as it is to revel in new wealth and newly available items, options and variety, we must strive to do so with a long-term view in mind. A revered saint once said, “Your freedom ends where my toes begin.”  If our freedom of purchase is turning the water that hundreds of millions depend upon for life into toxic sludge, then perhaps it is time to re-evaluate the expression of our freedom.  If our freedom of extravagance threatens to ravage the river revered as Mother Goddess by more than a billion people, and upon whose banks millions perform daily ablutions, then are we not infringing upon the freedom of others?

The issue of balance and sacrifice is a sensitive one. No one with the economic ability to spend wantonly would like their freedom to be curtailed. However, today, we no longer can pretend that we live in a vacuum. What I purchase here, is impacting the lives of those over there.  I am not suggesting bans or even taxes or disincentives for purchasing.  I am simply suggesting  that perhaps as a society we can re-evaluate our understanding of the idea of freedom, wealth and development.  Perhaps the man who can sleep soundly in the middle of the day, with a village bustling around him is wealthier in some meaningful way than those who need pills or a few glasses of wine or even the lull of a TV to fall asleep in their posh bedroom at midnight.  Perhaps, in the rapid rush to move forward, to break through  the glass ceilings of centuries of colonization, perhaps we have left something valuable behind. And, perhaps, that which we’ve left behind may benefit not only ourselves personally, but the very country we call Bharat Mata. Perhaps the answer to some of what ails us, our environment, our sacred rivers and hundreds of millions of our brothers and sisters can be found not by pushing further forward, but by pausing and looking back to see if we didn’t lose something along the way.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

New Vocabulary, Not New Values

What this country really needs,” the middle aged father from Delhi was saying in the evening satsang, “is leaders like Pujya Swamiji and yourself to give new values to our youth. They are not interested in the values of our generation. They need new values and you can bring that to them.”  While the compliment was flattering, and the truth of youth’s waning interest in their own culture certainly undeniable, something pierced me sharply about what he said. Some great error had been committed. Suddenly I responded, “It is not new values they need. It is simply a new vocabulary.”

I have lived in Rishikesh for the past 15 years and have witnessed a great shift in Indians’ mindset, particularly the younger generation. While they are ardently patriotic, while they are prepared to fast with Anna Hazare, to march for kilometers waving political flags, while they join Facebook groups with names like “Yuva Bharat”, “Bharat Swabhiman” and “Bharat Nirmaan Sena” despite all of this tenacious and fervent commitment to India and her future, they are not, in most cases, convinced by the culture.  In fact, night after night, in the evening satsangs and question-answer sessions in Pujya Swamiji’s jhopadi following Ganga Aarti, Indian youth ask questions that evidence their dissatisfaction or disinterest in what we call culture, or values or sanskaras. “Why can’t we date before marriage? Why do we have to live in a joint family? I believe in God but I don’t believe in temples or puja. Why can’t my parents understand this?”  They are turning from vegetarians to non-vegetarians, from teetotalers to drinkers , from virgins to promiscuously “cool” young adults at alarming rates.  “What’s wrong with our children?” many parents bemoan in the satsangs. “They have gone completely astray.”

I have watched this carefully. My academic background is psychology from Stanford University, hence I have a predisposition to analysis. Further, I came to India at age 25, having grown up in Los Angeles, in the heart of American upper class, “modern” culture and was so enraptured by the grace, the truth, the divinity and the depth of traditional Indian culture that – despite protests from every single person I knew back home –  I stayed.  So I have seen both worlds, up close.  I have seen hip American culture where acceptance is based on how you look in a black mini-skirt, with how many times a week you’re seen drinking coffee past 2 am in the local “hot spot”, with how many drug-filled dens of decadence you visit on a particular Saturday night. And I have seen the results.  Fifteen year olds killed in drunk driving accidents, cocaine-induced pregnancies and abortions at seventeen, anorexia and bulimia stealing the minds and lives of Ivy-League students, third marriages by the age of twenty-five, a country where the most commonly prescribed medicines are anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medication, sleeping pills and Viagra.

There is much to be emulated about Western culture. There is a commitment to excellence and perfection unmatched by most other countries. Punctuality, reliability, fulfillment of promises, adherence to contracts, integrity and honesty are all attributes which other countries, especially India, would benefit by adopting.  However, tragically, these are not the values being adopted by many metropolitan Indian youth. Rather, it is the illusion of sophistication, the allure of glamour, the myth of material enjoyment that are seeping into Indian culture.  

It is not that India needs new values. Indian culture, values, ethics and traditions form, in my opinion, the very foundation of a successful, meaningful and fulfilling life.  If you ask a random person in Los Angeles, stepping out of her Mercedes car, “How are you?” chances are you will get a litany of things that are wrong.  My back is hurting, the housekeeper didn’t show up, the store ran out of my favorite cereal, there was too much traffic on the freeway, etc.  If you ask the same question to an elderly village woman in the Himalayas carrying pounds of firewood on her head, back to cook the family’s one meal a day, chances are your question will be answered with “Sab Bhagawan ki kripa” or “Ganga ki kripa.” This is the fruit of culture: deep satisfaction despite the ups and downs of daily life.  Objectively God’s kripa certainly seems to have showered significantly more upon the woman in the Mercedes. Yet, she needs a pill to go to sleep, a pill to wake up, a pill to make it through the day.  The woman in the Himalayas sleeps and wakes with a smile on her face.
Indian culture is one that feeds first and eats second. I cannot count the number of times a family that doesn’t have the means to feed itself has begged me to come home for a meal. Or, if I continually refuse a meal, at least a cup of tea or “cold drink.” That I vehemently explain, over and over, that I don’t drink “cold drinks”, that even before coming to India I never drank Coke, is taken by them as mere social nicety. It is inconceivable that I, an American, don’t drink Coke. Hence, despite my protests they send the eldest child to the market to spend ten or twelve rupees on a cold drink.  That those twelve rupees were the funds for dinner is irrelevant.  They are as happy watching me try to graciously drink a Coke as if they were eating thalis full of food.  This is Indian culture.  Abundance is not measured by a bank balance. It is measured by whether one feels that one’s cup is overflowing. If my instinct is to share, to give, if I feel that I have more than enough and hence I want to feed others, I am rich, even if my feet are bare. If I feel that I don’t have enough and my instinct is to hold and to hoard, then I am poor, regardless of what the bank statements say.

India does not need new values. The values are what have kept India strong and united despite thousands of years of invasions. The values are what have kept Indians’ minds and hearts independent even when their country was colonized and oppressed.  However, today what is needed is a new vocabulary. The youth of today are being raised differently than any generation prior to them. Information is at their fingertips. Everything has an answer. If you don’t know it, Google it. Modern science and technology have rendered that which was inexplicable, enigmatic and impossible a decade ago child’s play today.  So we cannot expect them to accept “because I said so” or “because God made it that way” or “because it doesn’t look nice” or “just because” as reasonable motivation for doing anything. Whether it’s lighting the diya on the family mandir, being a vegetarian, giving daan, abstaining from sex before marriage or meditating, we are going to have to provide them compelling reasons and answers.  Fortunately there ARE compelling, scientific, rational reasons for all of these. However, most of us don’t know them.

Most middle-aged Indians today would never have dared question or disobey their parents. Therefore, their children’s rebuttals and incessant mantra of “why?” seem insolent and disrespectful.  They assume their children are intractable, when really they are simply bringing the new culture of questioning from school to home.  The youth of today are being raised and primed to ask, to wonder, to question, to investigate, to discover. They will not be appeased by the same answers that kept their parents’ generation in check. However, that doesn’t mean they’re off the track or in need of new values.  Rather, what we need is to find the vocabulary with which to give them the same values, but in a way that makes sense to their inquiring minds.  For example, I have heard innumerable parents exhort their children to believe that the cow is holy and therefore they must not eat hamburgers.  “But why is the cow holy?” they ask, typically quite sincerely.  “Because it is,” or “Because our scriptures say so,” or “Don’t be insolent” are the common answers.  When there is an answer for everything today, the lack of an answer to this makes them naturally and understandably suspicious.

However, there ARE scientific, rational, pragmatic reasons to be vegetarian, regardless of whether one believes the cow is holy.  The fact that the meat industry is the single greatest contributor to world hunger as well as environmental destruction is quite compelling.  The wastage of grain, land, water and energy used in the production of meat is enough to convince most.

This is just one example but it illustrates the fact that it’s not the values which need to be changed. The values are correct. It’s simply our method of explaining them, transmitting them that needs to be updated.  This of course puts greater responsibility on parents. They need to find real answers and not rely on the age-old tactics of “because I say so.” They need to make sure that their spiritual and cultural practices are real and true and not simply ritual.  A young child recently said to Pujya Swamiji, “I don’t ever go in the temple. I don’t believe in temples.” When questioned further the child explained, “My mother and my father go into the temple every morning and every evening.  They spend so much time in the temple, lighting this, doing that. But whenever they come out of the temple all they do is fight. I don’t want to spend my life fighting so I am avoiding temples.” So, we need to make sure that the values we are trying to pass onto our children are ones that we have truly, not merely superficially, adopted in our own lives.

India is, in my opinion, the richest country in the world. I am not referring to the GDP/GNP if all black money came back, but rather to the depth of culture, values, ethics and tradition.  There is nothing in Indian culture that is not compatible with modern technology, science or industry. There is nothing backward or old fashioned or obsolete.  The values and ethics of centuries ago are just as valid and just as applicable today as then. However, we have to put in a little effort to adapt the vocabulary and the method of transmission to today’s youth. Otherwise, if we hold tenaciously to the vocabulary of yesterday, which is unconvincing to today’s youth, they will continue to turn more and more to Western culture, depriving themselves, their families and future generations of one of the world’s richest treasure chests, a treasure chest of not only information but also inspiration.

Author bio:
American-born, Stanford graduate, Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati, PhD moved to India in 1996. She was officially ordained by Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji into the tradition of sanyas and lives at Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh, where she serves Pujya Swamiji's humanitarian projects, provides seva for the ashram, teaches meditation, gives discourses and counsels individuals and families.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Thanksgiving - An Opportunity to Give Life, Not Only Thanks

In America, one of the biggest holidays of the year is Thanksgiving. The feast is in honor of the first good harvest after the pilgrims came to the new land. In theory, this holiday is a beautiful one. The idea of gathering to give thanks, gathering on behalf of the bountiful harvest God has provided, gathering with family, is wonderful. It is one of the few times a year that Americans tend to ensure that the entire family is together. Thus, in this regard Thanksgiving is a great, wonderful tradition. However, unfortunately, the hallmark of this holiday is a large, roasted turkey sitting as the centerpiece on a beautifully decorated table, just waiting to be carved by the family members and relished with a side of potatoes and cranberries.

When I was a child, my family would always fly from Los Angeles to New York for Thanksgiving. We would gather with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. Before we began eating the many-course feast that sat, steaming, on the table in front of us, we would go around, each of us saying one thing we were thankful for. “I’m thankful I’m not a turkey,” I used to say. Year after year my grandfather would admonish me as soon as we entered the New England home. He’d stare down at me and demand to know, “You’re not going to say it again this year are you? You’ve outgrown that stupid little trick, haven’t you?” And each year I would lovingly reassure him that, no, I would not say it again. I would soothe his concern and tell him that I would say something “appropriate” this year. And I meant it. I honestly each year planned to think of something else to say.

Yet, as we sat – a family for whom expense was not an issue, a family who were not hunter/gatherers having to live only on that which they could pick or kill – around a huge, oval table, in a posh country home on the shore of the Atlantic ocean, I could think of nothing but the life lost by the large animal on the table in front of me.

We gather each November in the name of thanks. We gather to appreciate the bountiful harvest, to savor the wealth of the land called America. Yet, how can we simultaneously sit – with bowed heads – thanking a land whose creatures we slaughter? How can we give thanks for life, while consuming the life of another? How can we thank God for freedom when the food on our plates has spent its entire life in captivity, waiting to become a “roast”?

I realize these are harsh questions. I pray to God for the ability to ask them gently. Yet, it seems to me that the situation is severe enough, the suffering great enough, and our blindness complete enough that these questions must be asked. I feel that the meat industry in the West has all the propaganda weapons at its disposal: all the publicity, all the man-power, all the lobbyists. But, on the other side lies the truth; so, if it is all we have, we must not be afraid to face this truth.

From the time I was a child – long before I became a vegetarian – eating meat never felt quite right to me. I would only eat boneless meat, hidden in sauce, or already cut up meat, put into sandwiches. I could never bear to cut my food from its bone. But, I lived in a society where to refuse meat (especially as a child) incurred such a barrage of questions and criticisms that I was reluctant to do so.

When I was fifteen however, something happened that changed not only my eating habits but my entire vision of the American diet. I read a book called Diet for a New America, written by a man named John Robbins. Robbins was the eldest son of Mr. Robbins, from the Baskin-Robbins ice cream fortune, and had been slated to inherit this multi-million dollar corporation. But, he was a man of truth, and he decided that he could not in good conscience condone the way these dairy cows were treated. Ten years of seclusion and meditation later, he returned to America to make a thorough investigation of the meat and dairy industries and to unveil the travesties buried within.

The book makes the most compelling case I have ever seen for vegetarianism. It is so filled with truth, love and wisdom that it gave me the courage to live by what my heart felt was right. The day I read the book was the last day I ate any form of meat or meat products. I became a young, stubborn vegetarian in a society that adamantly tried to convince me I was depriving myself of both nutrients and enjoyment. However, knowing that I was acting from my heart gave me a window of truth through which to look at the world.

It feels to me that the way in which we Westerners celebrate, the way in which we give thanks does not have a lot of integrity. Perhaps we really are thankful; perhaps our hearts are honestly filled with joyous celebration. Nonetheless our actions – having a roast turkey as the star of this holiday – do not seem to me to be in concert with feelings of deep gratitude.

I look at the way Indians give thanks, at what symbols and rituals pervade their puja. I look at a yagna. The spirit of yagna is sacrifice. These celebrations are not filled with sensual gratification at the expense of others. Rather, they are filled with a true spirit of thanks: God has given to us, so our heart says we should sacrifice for Him, give back to Him. The symbols of a yagna – the burning of our sins and desires, the offering of everything at the holy feet of the Lord, the reminder that "Nothing is mine, oh God, it is all Yours,"  – this is what feels to me like true thanks. Those who are full of blessings, and gratitude for those blessings, have a natural instinct to share with others, to give to others and to serve others. To them it seems their cup always runneth over.  It seems, in contrast, that there is something reprehensible about the idea of sitting down to thank God through the consumption of His child smothered in gravy!

Let us, instead, pause and give thanks for something far more valuable than a bountiful harvest. Let us give thanks for our human ability to have compassion, to have empathy for the plight of another, to make choices that not only satisfy our bodies in the moment, but that satisfy our hearts and souls. Let us, rather than destroy our precious environment and the creatures who live within it, let us give thanks for the land that can feed us, feed our fellow creatures, convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, give us medicine to heal our sickness and provide shelter for all God’s creatures.

Let us give thanks for our ability to think clearly, to discriminate between right and wrong, and to sacrifice a temporary pleasure for the benefit of another. Let us give thanks for our ability to choose right from wrong and our freedom to act accordingly.