I would like to show my appreciation for the unique interfaith environment at Georgetown University. Here is a story of how a devout Muslim learned about the Christian concept of agape by engaging with the Hindu community.
Since my arrival at Georgetown, I had been eager to explore my Indian background; I participated in many cultural events such as South Asian dance festivals and Bollywood movie nights. I also became enthusiastic about interfaith cooperation after attending an Interfaith Youth Core Leadership Institute in October 2010; I realized that dialogue among Abrahamic religions were especially common due to our school’s Jesuit-Catholic identity, and other institutionalized chaplaincies for Protestant, Orthodox Christian, Muslim, and Jewish students. However, inter-religious dialogue that focused on Hinduism, the largest faith community at Georgetown without a permanent chaplaincy, was relatively rare.
Due to my interests in South Asian culture and interfaith work, I always wondered whether a Hindu-Muslim dialogue event would be possible. I realized that my identity put me in a unique position to facilitate such a dialogue; my family is Indian and Muslim, and we are often viewed as the “cultural bridge” between most Indians (who are predominantly Hindu) and the Muslim community. Growing up, I had read epics like the Mahabharata and Ramayana and always viewed them as proud symbols of my Indian cultural heritage.
Since I was eager to discuss these works with others, I began attending Hindu pujas. I was amazed by how quickly and easily the Hindu students accepted me into their community despite my different religious background. The Hindu students went out of their way to make me feel comfortable, and were not offended when I abstained from certain prayers, rituals, and chants that I felt were contrary to my Muslim beliefs.
Due to my enthusiasm for Hindu literature, I was able to have deep, personal conversations about faith, values, and identity with my Hindu friends. I also experienced growth in my Muslim faith by reflecting on Hindu perspectives on various topics like the teacher-student relationship, just-war theory, and spiritual devotion. As I learned about these new perspectives, I became more eager to contribute in discussions with my Muslim friends, and reflect on the intersections between Islam, Hinduism, and South Asian identity. Indeed, I felt so at home with the Hindu students that I now consider their acceptance of me to be agapic. In Tattoos on the Heart, a book about the gang rehabilitation program Homeboy Industries, Fr. Gregory Boyle described agape in terms of the “no matter what-ness” of God (Boyle 52). In other words, agape means that God’s love for all creation is unconditional, and is open to all regardless of what anyone might have done in their lives. For the Hindu students, it was not agapic that they accepted me in spite of some wrong I had committed; rather, it was their unconditional love and acceptance of me despite my completely different background and religious beliefs.
One aspect of puja that really resonated with me was music. I had sung and played instruments from a very young age, but never felt the need to integrate this into my spirituality. However, hearing how Hindus experienced God through music showed me that music was a sacrament, a way to connect the tangible to the intangible (God). As the Catholic priest Fr. Michael Himes describes in The Mystery of Faith, anything (a particular practice, location, or item) that helps one connect with God’s grace/love can be considered a sacrament (12). For Muslims, the closest things to sacraments are our Five Pillars, which involve praying, fasting, and the pilgrimage to Mecca, among other things. However, I soon discovered that Islam did have a semi-musical tradition in spirituality, and that it was sometimes not emphasized. One form of this was the art of tajweed: eloquent, almost musical recitation of Quranic verses. I remembered the quote from Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), “Adorn your voices with the Quran” (Mishkat-ul-Masabeeh, Book 3) and the Prophet’s high respect for his companion Bilal who was known for his melodious call to prayer. Therefore, I resolved to improve my own Quran recitation, and in the process, felt better connected to my own tradition.
After I shared these experiences of personal growth with both my Hindu and Muslim friends, both student organizations became enthusiastic about holding a joint dialogue event. For both communities, this event was a chance to build new partnerships and set a precedent for interfaith cooperation outside of the Abrahamic traditions. I worked with the board members of the Hindu and Muslim Student Associations to develop discussion questions on a wide range of topics. Although some of these questions revealed philosophical divides between Islam and Hinduism, we titled the event “Shanti and Salaam” (meaning “peace” in Hindi, and Arabic, respectively) to emphasize the centrality of peacemaking in both religions.
“Shanti and Salaam” was a huge success: the event, held in April 2012, drew over 40 student participants, and was one of Georgetown’s most successful student interfaith dialogue events. In fact, the event was so popular that it has become an important feature of programming for both the Hindu and Muslim Student Associations every year. As a Muslim, I am glad to have experienced personal growth while understanding my Hindu friends on a deeper level, and further exploring the Christian concepts of agape and sacraments. It was immensely fulfilling to live up to one of my favorite Quranic verses which says, “O mankind, indeed We [Allah] have created you from male and female and made you into peoples and tribes that you may understand one another” (49:13).
both women and men are manifestations of the Supreme Being – Atharva Veda Samhita 8:9:11
The Bhagavad Gita mentions that every living being has a soul (atman). A true seeker sees all souls with equal vision and without judgement. Gita 5:18 sums this up: “The enlightened and wise regard with equal mind a priest endowed with learning and humility, an outcast, a cow, an elephant, and even a dog.” For one to assume they’re better than someone else based on their physical encasing (the body) is contradictory to viewing all beings as atma, which clearly has no gender. The eternal soul carries on to the afterlife – not the physical body. This idea is again reinforced where it’s stated that any devotee regardless of gender or status in society can reach God’s abode so long as they have sincere devotion and obey Vedic laws (Gita 8:13, 8:22, 9:3, 10:10).
Today women all over the world are mistreated, abused, denied education, and forced into submission. Unfortunately there are misinformed people (both pro- and anti-women) who believe that organized religion supports misogyny. The reality is that religions such as Hinduism preach respect for women. In order to combat men who use religion to justify their superiority complex and backward attitudes, scriptural law needs to be looked at more closely.
Education and property rights
Hinduism encourages study and the pursuit of knowledge – the Gita refers to this as jnana yoga. In the Vedic Age women were encouraged to be well versed in scriptures and fully educated. Atharva Veda 11:5:18 proclaims that daughters should be scholars. Mahanirvana Tantra 8:47 commands parents to raise their daughters with affection and to ensure they receive an education.
Both scriptural and archaeological evidence exist that girls and women were educated in Vedic schools with the same learning privileges given to boys and men. Likewise women were granted property rights with Rig Veda 3:31:1 affirming that privileges are equal between son and daughter when inheriting land from their parents.
Marriage is considered more than a symbolic union between two people – it’s an enjoining of two souls. A common critique of gender relations in Hindu texts are verses where wives are told to treat their husbands like God. But this is only half of what’s written. If one reads the sastras in their entirety they’ll discover that the husband is also commanded to treat his wife as Goddess! Vishnu Purana states “Where Vishnu is knowledge, Lakshmi is intelligence.” In Hindu doctrine the most High cannot exist without both female and male aspects in equal balance. And in the human realm, for a man to destroy, diminish, or subjugate woman is considered blasphemous. Among Vaishnava sects chanting or singing the names of the Vishnu’s forms must be done with the woman’s name first: Sita-Ram, Radha-Krishna, etc.
There is also an incorrect belief that a Hindu man has full power to pick and choose his wife while a Hindu woman has no say. Simply reading Hindu texts disproves this. In the Ramayana, princes from all over South Asia had to travel to a small kingdom to compete for the hand of princess Sita. In the Mahabharata a similar competition among men took place to win the heart of Draupadi. Rather than the man having full authority in deciding his marriage, he had to prove his worthiness to his potential spouse. The Mahabharata also contains multiple stories of women choosing their husband, even sometimes upsetting their fathers and other male relatives.
Marriages where women are forced to marry against their will are referred to as asuric (asuras are demons in hell). Hinduism has no law on dowry and women who are married off in exchange for wealth are also categorized as asuric marriages. Marriages formed through kidnapping or use of force is classified as rakshasha (rakshashas are those who oppose Vedic culture). Scriptures state in plain language that a dharmic marriage is one based on mutual respect sanctioned by the heavens (gandharva). A union based on subjugation, greed, or force is endorsed by beings with demonic qualities.
A controversial episode takes place in the Ramayana where King Rama banishes his pregnant wife Sita after his subjects accuse Sita of cheating on Rama. Both misogynists and women’s rights activists regularly cite this story to link Hinduism with sexism. But during Sita’s exile Rama refused to remarry saying “I have abandoned the woman you do not want as your queen, but I will forever remain faithful to the woman who is my wife.” Tragically, the story closes with Sita ending her life and Rama being filled with intense grief. The lesson taught here is not that husbands are allowed to mistreat their wives but rather they should give them the utmost respect regardless of opinions of others. Had Rama supported spousal abuse or the idea of women being inferior he wouldn’t have felt any guilt, loneliness, or anguish upon Sita’s death. In fact, Rama is described as crying uncontrollably after her passing and grieving into old age.
Another controversial subject is that of widowhood and the act of sati (forcing a wife to walk into the cremation fire of her deceased husband). Like other religions Hinduism considers suicide a sin. Sati is not described or supported in any text and is a relatively new and unethical practice. Just the opposite, Rig Veda 10:18:8-9 tells women to rise up if their husband is deceased and to charge on with their lives.
Those who attempt to link sati to Hinduism usually reference two stories. One account is of a woman named Sati who killed herself because her father didn’t support her marriage to Shiva. Sati was not a widow as Shiva was alive when she took her life. Thinking that this is about a woman being forced to burn because of a dead spouse is inaccurate. The second story mentioned earlier was where Sita asks the Earth to swallow her up because Rama rejected her. Rama was not deceased and Sita had two children – how this is connected to a widow dying for her departed husband doesn’t make quite make sense. In addition the Ramayana tells of Rama’s father who died yet his mother carried on. Later in the Ramayana, a king by name of Vali is killed and his grieving wife Tara declares that she prefers death over widowhood. Rama and Hanuman convince Tara not to commit suicide. Likewise in the Mahabharata, Krishna intervenes to prevent Uttara, the grieving wife of deceased soldier Abhimanyu, not take her own life. In addition Kunti the widowed mother of the Pandavas, stayed alive after her husband’s death and played an active matriarchal role in advising her sons. Rig Veda 10:40:8 asks for widows and worshipers to be protected daily which contradicts the belief that Hinduism calls for widows to be shunned and mistreated.
Lastly, another narrative from the Mahabharata is the story of Savitri, a woman who chose her own husband only to have him die shortly after because of a curse placed on him. Because of Savitri’s wisdom and deep philosophical knowledge she was able to debate and convince Yama, the lord of Death to bring her husband back to life. The legend of Savitri is complete reversal of the traditional knight in shining armor rescuing the damsel in distress. Rather it’s about a woman well versed in dharma saving her husband’s soul from the clutches of death and outsmarting the power of a curse.
Violence against women
The highest ideal and duty preached in Hinduism is ahimsa or non-violence towards all beings. This doesn’t mean blind pacifism in the face of danger. It simply means that violence should only be used as a last resort (ie. in self defense against another violent attacker). This concept is repeated in the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras, the Upanisads, and numerous other texts. Anyone claiming that Hindu sastras support violence towards women is challenging the divine laws on ahimsa.
Part 2: Hindu women as priests, yoginis, saints, and warriors
Often a point of contention in religious debates, the idea of God manifesting in various forms is greatly misunderstood. There are some who believe that Hindus worship “330 million different gods” with Hindu verses taken out of context and misconstrued. It needs to be emphasized that the main point of this piece is not whether religions are polytheistic (belief in more than one god) or monotheistic (belief in one god). This is irrelevant – the objective is to show that multiple forms of the Creator are written about in the sacred texts of ALL major religions, not just in Hinduism. The essence is the same. The conflict is merely an issue of language/semantics. Before detailing what exactly Hinduism says on this subject it’s important to first examine the three religions which are usually labeled monotheistic.
What Abrahamic faiths say
Genesis 1:26 of the Torah narrates “”Let us make man in our image, in our likeness.” The words “us” and “our” imply that more than one creator constructed humanity. In Genesis, one Supreme Force assigns the task of creating Adam to
a team of divine servants. The Old Testament calls this team “angels”; Hindu scriptures use the Sanskrit term devas (demigods) instead to describe those who serve Brahman. The Hebrew word El-ohim which is used numerous times in the Torah can be translated to mean one single God or multiple entities. At the end of every angel’s name is “el” (Gabri-el, Rapha-el, Immanu-el, etc.), each representing a different aspect or characteristic of the larger Creator El.
Catholicism references not one but three divinities – God the Father, Jesus his son, and the Holy Spirit. Catholics are also known to pray to various saints who handle specific issues. Protestant faiths revolve around the worship of two distinct beings, God the Father and his son Jesus. The New Testament 23:33 even contains a conversation where Jesus says “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In monotheism would this be considered a monologue or a dialogue?
Islam continues in the lineage of the Hebrew prophet Abraham. Just as in the Torah, the Quran also uses the plural “we”: “And We did certainly create the heavens and earth ” (50:38) and “O people, we created you from the same male and female.” (49:13)
What Hinduism says
It’s clear that there’s an inconsistency when defining religions as polytheistic or monotheistic. When a person worships Ganesh the son and his Father Shiva they’re said to believe in more than one God. The same thing isn’t said about someone who worships Jesus the son and his Father Jehovah. The Catholic Trinity is considered monotheist, but the Hindu Trimurti of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva is not. When the Vedas say that Brahman manifested as various entities then the conclusion is that Hindus believe in many gods. But when the book of Genesis and Surat Qaf describe a legion of creators that designed Man this is somehow not the same thing.
And what do religions say about how their sacred texts were delivered to prophets? Exodus 3:3 states “The angel of the Lord appeared to him as flames in the fire from a bush.” Here, commentators refer to this fire as “the presence of God.” But when this story is presented to the public, Moses is instead talking directly with God, not an angel as the scriptures specify. Muslims also believe that the angel Gabriel revealed the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. Yet the Quran is referred to as “the word of God.” Even though God did not directly transmit the Quran to Muhammad, it’s accepted that Gabriel is a representation of God delivering the word.
Yet critics of Hinduism will not allow this same logic to be applied to its scriptures. The Mahabharata was penned by sage Vyasa and dictated by Ganesh, yet it’s not considered a divine text because it wasn’t revealed by directly by Bhagavan. The BhagavadGita was sung by Krishna, but since he’s an avatar (manifestation) of Vishnu in the form of an Earthly being, it’s not considered the word of God. And even though it was not heavenly beings but men who penned the New Testament the same way the Vedas where were revealed to rishis, the Vedas cannot be considered divinely inspired.
The common argument is Biblical and Quranic verses do not promote polytheism, but that God merely materialized as separate representations at the same time. This is exactly what Hindu scriptures having been saying all along – that the Creator can manifest, act, and reveal on this plane in an infinite number of ways.
First let’s address the misconception that Hindus worship “330 million gods” (or some similar outlandish number) by looking directly into their scriptures. Rig Veda 1:164:46 says “the One Being is called by many names.” This point is elaborated in the Upanisads, a sub-text which is presented as conversations between a teacher and his pupils. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1:9:1 contains one such dialogue:
Student: How many gods are there?
Guru: Three hundred and three and three thousand and three.
Student: How many gods are there?
Guru: Thirty three.
Student: How many gods are there?
This dialogue goes on until finally the Guru reaches the answer One. He continues by saying that there is one Being who pervades the entire universe and manifests in infinite forms. There is no Hindu text that lists a million names, let alone thirty three million. In a daily Vedic ceremony priests/brahmins are required to chant the many titles of God. If priests had to speak such high a number in one ritual they’d probably be chanting their whole lives without a break. And imagine the overwhelming task if each Hindu had to individually worship 330 million gods every time they prayed or visited a temple!
The Katha Upanishad expands on the idea of infinite manifestations: There is one Ruler, the Spirit that is in all things, who transforms his own form into many.
Indian saint Namdev of the Sikh tradition also wrote in agreement with Hinduism: He is the One in many, countless are His shapes and forms. He pervades all that exists; wherever I look, He is there.
The Bhagavad Gita also details the idea of devas and One Supreme Deity. Avatar narrator Krishna explains that devotees
have permission to devote their heart to the form of God they desire: I am in everyone’s heart. As soon as one desires to worship a deva, I make their faith steady so that he/she can devote himself to that particular deity. Endowed with such a faith, they execute worship of a particular deity and obtains their desires. But in reality these benefits are given by Me. (7:21-23)
This verse also gives a glimpse as to why there are no Hindu missionaries around the world working to convert people. The Gita states that whichever form of the Creator a person is attracted to whether it be Brahman, Allah, Raba, Yahweh, or anything else, they are encouraged to worship that form so long as the devotion is sincere and they obey God’s basic tenets. The viewpoint that the Supreme has created the Earth to be a battleground for religious fighting or competition is rejected.
Gita 17:23 says that the chanting of priests in Vedic ceremonies performed specifically for God’s agents are directly pleasing to Brahman: From the beginning of creation, the three words OM TAT SAT were used to symbolize God. These three representations were used by brahmins chanting Vedic hymns for the satisfaction of the Supreme.
In Chapter 11 of the Gita, Krishna reveals his infinite forms to Arjun, showing that the Divine is able to manifest in an infinite number of ways, both beautiful and terrible. Arjun is so terrified of the sight that he asks Krishna to revert back to the comforting single, personal form understood by him. This is something mirrored by religious devotees, as most people attach themselves to the religion that makes them feel comfortable in their form of worship.
In all religions various attributes and qualities are assigned to the Creator. But the reality is most people choose to worship a form of the Creator they feel mirrors their personal viewpoints. Some view God as vengeful and angry, while others see a loving and merciful God. Some see God as encompassing of all these qualities, while others say God is incapable of having attributes since attributes are human-like. We see these differences in the various sects of religions, some causing rifts within communities that supposedly worship the same Supreme Being. Likewise in Hinduism, Hindus are attracted to the form of deity which is pleasing to their outlook on religion. Which form of God or deva appeals to a Hindu devotee’s heart and mind is the one they will choose to worship. Instead of being hung up on terms like “polytheism” or “monotheism” Hindus instead must focus on steadying their devotion, purifying their heart, and focusing their intellect on loving worship of the Infinite.
Brahman exists everywhere. Prophets and Incarnations are born to show benighted humanity their way. They give different instructions to suit different temperaments. There are many ways to realize truth. So all these instructions have their relative value. For instance, many birds are perched on the branches of a tree. They are of different colors: white, black, red, yellow, and so on. Their sounds, too, are different. But when they sing we say that the sounds are made by the birds. We do not designate one particular sound only as the sound of the birds, and refuse to acknowledge the other sounds as such. – Mother Sarada Devi
KYOTO: Spiritual leaders from India and Pakistan are gathering in Japan for the third dialogue in an effort to deepen understanding of the underlying unity of religions as a framework for global peace. Buddhist leaders from Japan have been asked to host a retreat for delegates from two religious traditions whose home countries have been in conflict.
Shinnyo-en, a Buddhist community with roots in Japan is the host of the Kyoto interfaith dialogue. “Shinnyo-en is committed to altruism and peace building efforts all over the world and across religions. It is our honor to host this important interfaith dialogue, and to be able to bring our Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist friends to our Ryukyo-in, which we feel will have lasting effects,” said Reverend Minoru Shitara.
This month continues Dharma Deen Alliance’s exploration of the role of Nature and the importance of respecting God’s creation. Part 1, published in November explored the Hindu perspective, and this month Part 2 will discuss the Islamic perspective.
Part 2: Signs in the Universe and in the Soul: The Qur’an and Environmentalism by Azeem
The Qur’an is replete with references to the natural world, so much so that concern with the environment stands as one of the most important Qur’anic themes that runs throughout the Islamic scripture What is revealed through careful reading and contemplation of these verses is a clear mandate for humankind, as representatives of God on earth [khalifa], to preserve and honor the outer world as a precious gift from that Divine Source. We are called to look to the visible world around us, especially the beauty, intricacy and cycles of nature as a means to know ourselves, and as the Prophet Muhammad famously said, “One who knows their self, knows God”.
Inseparable from the Natural World
The Qur’an explains the creation of man as a fusion of “clay” and Holy Breath. God molded the primordial form of humanity from the same substance as the planet, and more accurately from the substance of the universe. Modern science echoes this by explaining how cosmic matter comes from that same point commonly known as the big bang. There are two components to each of us: the material and the spiritual. Each of the elements of creation found in our body are mirrored in physical existence. Though humanity can reach a level of exultation through spiritual development, surpassing even the angels in state and station, the Qur’an reminds us that on the physical level, the universe is greater than all of humanity:
The creations of the heavens and the earth is indeed of greater magnitude than the creation of mankind; but most men do not understand.
Our egos want to be at the center of everything, yet the vast cosmos is not simply a backdrop in the human story. Every life depend upon it for survival. Our planet cannot be abused haphazardly according to the Qur’an. Not only that, other beings must be regarded as communities in their own right, given the rights and respect owed to them just as all human communities must be given rights and protected. Animals are also part of God’s universal chapters [ayat] mentioned above:
There is not a thing that moves on the earth, no bird that flies on its wings, but has a community of its own like yours. There is nothing that We have left out from recording. Then they will all be gathered before their Lord.
– Quran 6:38
Do they not see the birds above them flying wings spread out or folded? Nothing holds them aloft but God. All things are within his purview.
God created every moving thing from water: One crawls on its belly, one walks on two legs, another moves on four. God creates whatsoever He wills. Indeed God has power over every thing.
Far from legitimizing the excuse that we are free to exploit this world as we see fit, the Qur’an makes it explicit that everything exists in the universal book of God, the Qur’an of the cosmos. Just as we treat the Qur’an itself with the utmost respect, similarly we should treat all beings that exist within its pages with that level of utmost care. As the most repeated names of God other than Allah in the Qur’an, Mercy [Rahman] and Compassion [Rahim] must be at the very center of all our intentions and actions.
Contemplating Divine Signs
There are signs in the earth for those who are firm in their faith, and within yourselves. Can you not perceive?
The term ayat, or signs in Arabic designates both the individual verses of the Qur’an and also “verses” from the book of the universe that surrounds us. And just as one studies the Qur’an and other sacred scriptures as a means to gain knowledge and spiritual nearness, this very world provides the same opportunity for those who “see”. This is a deeper seeing that must encompass the unseen, the great depths of mystery pointing towards God’s all-encompassing Unity. To look with clarity beyond a dogmatic materialism into this spiritual component of the world is what the Prophet prayed for when he asked God to “show him things as they truly are”. It is like the story of the man in the dark touching a rope that he is convinced is a snake.
Our own perceptions, when coming from the ego are distortions of truth. We must use a heightened “seeing” when studying this world. This type of seeing is about looking very deeply, using the sword of wisdom to delve into what Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan calls “that which transpires behind that which appears”. That means looking beyond the material into the great mystery.
A spiritual journeyer [suluk] uses his or her subtle wisdom to open the book of the natural world. This can start with the cyclical processes of night and day,
the movement of the stars, thunder and the movement of lakes into oceans for example. All of these awe inspiring natural processes are mentioned in the Qur’an, effectively presenting contemplative tools to experience nature more completely. It is related that the Prophet Abraham [Ibrahim a.s.] experienced the Oneness of God after carefully studying the natural world. He saw that the sun, moon and stars all passed away. The only thing that did not was the Source from which they came.
Contemplation of the sky, a theme found the world over in traditional societies and religions, is used to awaken reverence:
It is God who raised the skies without support, as you can see, then assumed His throne, and enthrolled the sun and the moon (so that) each runs to a predetermined course.
It is He who makes the lightning flash for fear and hope, and raises massive clouds. The thunder sings his praises, and the angels too, for awe of Him.
Have you not seen that God drives the clouds, then joins them together and puts them fold on fold. Then you see the rain fall through them; and He sends down hail from the sky where there are mountains of it, and strikes those with it whom He will, and wards it off from whomsoever he please.
Other passages turn our attention to the physical terrain of the earth:
It is He who stretched the earth and placed upon it stabalizers and rivers; and made two of a pair of every fruit; (and) He covers up the day with the night. In these are signs for those who reflect.
The earth was spread out as a prayer carpet for humanity to live in a state of perpetual prayerfulness. Unlike Islamic ritual prayer, where the focus of direction [qibla] is towards Mecca, in contemplating the spiritual significance of the earth, the qibla is an inner orientation towards God.
Natural in Constant Praise
On the most mundane level, we see prayer as something we deicide to do, perform and then finish. It has a beginning and an end. The Prophets, Messengers and Awliya Allah [Friends of God] challenged the way we compartmentalize prayer, explaining how every action can be transmuted into a sacred act. Prayer is not just asking God for help or blessings on a planetary or even universal scale. Everything in nature is actually constantly praying to God without pause: Have you not seen that all those who are in the heavens and the earth, and the birds on the wing, sing the praises of God. Each one knows its obligations and duties, and God knows whatever they do.
Even inanimate objects pray to God in their own way: Do they not see the shadows of all things God has created incline to the right and the left, bowing in obeisance to God?
From the smallest rock, insect, bird or tree up to the heavenly spheres; the cosmos as a whole is prostrated to the Divine: Ar-Rahman (the Merciful) Bestowed the Qur’an, created man, And taught him to express clearly. The sun and moon revolve to a computation; and the grasses and the trees bow (to Him) in adoration. He raised the sky and and set the Balance…
If all things- animate and inanimate, big and small- pray without thinking of praying, and without ceasing at all, then it follows that humanity also, on the deepest level of our spirit is also constantly communing and praying to God. Though the great Sufis and other Islamic sages say that this is the case, we can also choose to turn away from this innate nature by not joining the symphony of praise being echoed, even if we ourselves are a part of it without knowing it. It is the conscious decision to become ordinary in a sense, to become a true human [insan kamil], and that means becoming linked with the natural world that is always in communion with the Divine.
We have not created but with reason the heavens and the earth and all that lies within them.
Islam does not accept any dualistic perception of the world where falsehood or evil hold any real power. It is Truth alone that sustains all life. What is false is an illusion, since God created everything as a tool for transformation and realization. Suffering exists, and from a purely materialistic point of view it defines existence, but spirituality dictates that Truth is central, even if we do not understand how and why things are as they are.
Simply saying that Truth is the basis of the world is hollow without realizing that if we are to know Truth inwardly and with complete certainty, we must carry the responsibility it entails. The Qur’an explains how humanity was presented with a sacred trust, which we accepted: We had offered the trust (of divine responsibilities) to the heavens, the earth, the mountains, but they refrained from bearing the burden and were frightened of it; but man too it on himself.” (33:72)
God is aware of what is being done against the earth and the inhabitants therein. The Qur’an gives a prescription to remedy this short sightedness and callousness- That is to “Walk on the earth in humility” (Quran 5:63). There is no other way to align ourselves with nature’s signs.
Nature Points Towards Unity
Finally, it bares repeating that the natural world in which we are born, and in which we shall one day die is not at all separate from who we are. And who we are is a single soul appearing as a multitude of distinct individuals. And in the highest sense, that soul is not even humanity as we understand it but everything that is. Nature points towards Unity because Unity is the only thing that is real. All else is illusion. La ilaha ilAllah- Only God is Real.
The Qur’an mentions that as our vision expands, we will see the signs manifested in our souls and in the Universe as a whole: “We will show Our signs to them in the horizons of the external world and within themselves, until it becomes clear to them that it’s the truth.” (Q 41:53)
The Truth that the Qur’an came to renew, through the revelations brought to the Beloved Prophet Muhammad s.a.w.s., is that La ilaha ilAllah, that Divine Oneness that is a bridge linking the material and spiritual worlds- actually tearing apart the divisions we imagine between these.
The Qur’an came, like all the revealed scriptures before it, as a gateway, paradoxically spiritual language- God’s words, filtered through the human tongue. Similarly, nature itself as a vast Qur’an that surrounds us at all times, reverberating in its sacred hymns without end, is a link between worlds. By studying it with a pure heart full of love, awe and God-consciousness [taqwa], this Qur’an reminds us that we do not own the world. Our arrogant ambitions and passing whims are a veil between us and the Creator, Allah. Humility is surrender [islam], and as a Muslim [one who surrenders], as well as all people of faith, to given yourself to God is to walk lightly on the earth.
And all that is in the heavens and the earth belong to God; and everything is well within the compass of God.
– Quran 4:126
Hindu and Muslim religious leaders from India, Pakistan and Afghanistan met to explore forming a spiritual alliance to ease tensions, counter extremism, and set a new tone for the region. Gathering thirty-five leaders from various traditions, the Sufi-Yogi Dialogue took place in a place famous for spiritual seers and sages, Rishikesh, on the banks of the sacred Ganges River in India.
The Sufis and Yogis in particular were chosen for this ground-breaking dialogue because they represent the mystical core of the Islamic and Hindu traditions. As such, they are especially suited to distilling the essence of unity, the direct experience of the Divine, at the heart of both religions, –and perhaps ultimately of all religious experience. Tapping into this inner source of unity, common to all spiritual paths at their innermost level, has the potential to guide us to outer unity in our crisis-torn world. Experiencing our true identity with the Divine can then serve as a fulcrum for global healing and harmony.
Kalpana Bhanja, a Hindu, and Saira, a Muslim, swapped their kidneys to save their husbands’ lives. This is said to be first ever inter-religion cross-donor kidney transplantation in India.
Harekrushna Bhanja, 48, was almost at the last stage of his life. Harekrushna was told that he had to undergo kidney transplantation. His wife said she was ready to give her kidney to save her husband’s life, but the blood group did not match. It was almost the same story for the Sayeeds, residents of Cuttack in Orissa. Fortunately, both families landed at the same hospital at the same time. Saira, Sayeed’s wife, was also ready to donate her kidney to her husband.
Ironically, Kalpana’s blood group matched with Sayeed and Saira’s with Bhanja, said Dr. Deeepak Shankar Ray, the chief nephrologist at the Manjulaben Kidney Hospital.
This month will kick off Dharma Deen Alliance’s exploration of the role of Nature and the importance of respecting God’s creation. Part 1 will explore the Hindu perspective, while Part 2 will published in December discussing the Islamic perspective.
Part 1: Environmentalism according to Hinduism by Ravi
The rivers are the veins of the Cosmic and trees the hairs of his body. The air is breath, the ocean his waist, the hills and mountains are the stacks of his bones and the passing ages are his movements.
– Srimad Bhagavatam 2.1.32-33
Let us adore the the Luminous, who is in fire, who is in water, who is in plants and trees, who pervades the whole universe.
– Shvetashvatara Upanishad 2:17
Nature possesses great value in Hinduism as its tied to many of our scripture’s ancient stories. In addition to being part of Bhagavan’s lila (divine play and creation) being surrounded by Nature forces one to live a simpler lifestyle free from the daily stresses of societal attachments. This in turn helps a seeker focus their attention on Higher Truth rather than worrying about trivial matters.
NATURE’S ROLE IN EXECUTING DHARMA
The Earth is mother, the Heavens are father
– Atharva Veda 12.1.12
Trees are referenced frequently in Hindu scriptures as many deeper mystical lessons contained in the Upanisads or the Gita use metaphors involving banyan, sandalwood, and pipal trees. Sages usually transmitted sacred knowledge to their students while gathered under a tree in the jungle. Stories of devotees from cities or villages seeking knowledge would travel through forests seeking out rishis living in isolation. In the great epics the heroes of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata spent years banished to the jungles of South Asia due to the heinous actions of adharmic villains. The divine avatar Krishna spent his youth as a cow herder in the forests of Vrindavan. Siddhartha Guatama transformed into the Buddha while meditating under a bodhi tree. Clearly, nature plays a major role in connecting with the Divine.
Water holds importance because of its purifying properties which is why rivers, lakes, and oceans,are referenced in Hindu texts regularly. Before conducting pujas Hindus are expected to bathe to cleanse away both external and internal impurities. The mighty rivers that flow from the Himalayan peaks and provide water to the Asian continent are said to have qualities of shakti and named after divine Goddesses such as Ganga and Saraswati. In the story of Creation life arises out of the cosmic ocean (much like what science teaches us today) and at the end of certain festivals clay representations of Deities are dissolved in bodies of water. Rig Veda 1:23 praises the life giving properties of this importance substance:
Waters contain all disease dispelling medicine, useful for the upkeep of our body, so that we may live long to enjoy the bright sun. That there is ambrosia in waters, there is healing balm in them, and there are medicinal herbs, know this all, and by their proper use become wiser.
Mountains are also regularly referenced in scriptures with the Himalayasholding a special place in the heart of dharmic
traditions. Saints, prophets, ascetics, and monks of various religions have made pilgrimages to the world’s highest mountain peaks for religious training or heightened experiences. The Pandava family of the Mahabharata undertook a dangerous trek to the Himalayas for the purpose of attaining spiritual rewards. Holy men and women known as sadhus travel there to meditate in isolation. And Hindu pilgrims endure a harsh journey on foot that can last for days to weeks to circumambulate around the bases of certain locations or climb great heights to visit mountain-top shrines.
Those residing in cities or villages who are unable to or lack a desire to visit the wilderness also have an important dharmic role to play. People uninterested in pursuing the isolated lifestyle of an ascetic or the dedicated studies of a monk are instead asked to assist those who are on a quest for Higher Truth. One way of serving devotees is by honoring Creation through conservation. This not only sustains and honors Brahman’s conception it assists those people who’ve decided to seek out the Divine through austerity in natural surroundings. Therefore Hindus who’ve chosen to function as a part of greater society are obligated to support devotees by donating a percentage of their time and/or income to natural conservation just as it’s their dharmic duty to offer charity to a temple or to social causes.
EXAMPLES OF HINDU ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVISTS
One famous Vaishnava sect known as Bishnois was established in Rajasthan in the 1400’s. Since the guru and his surrounding community lived in a region where wildlife conservation was vital he decreed several injunctions prohibiting the killing of animals and cutting down of trees. A few hundred years later more than 300 Bishnois protested and sacrificed their lives when a king began deforestation around their villages to build a palace. Bishnois have been known to be fierce protectors of animals against recreational hunters as well.
In the 1970’s villagers in Uttar Pradesh demonstrated against corporate logging and started the Chipko movement. The term “tree hugger” actually originates from this era since village women would embrace trees to prevent their livelihood from being destroyed. This in turn inspired a similar 1980’s Appiko movement in Karnataka, where locals used creative means to stop factory pollution and deforestation as well as promoting energy efficiency.
There are numerous other modern day examples of Hindus fighting for ecology. There are temples around the world going green by installing solar panels and implementing recycling projects. Organizations like BAPS have used methods of collecting rain water in impoverished areas as well as starting tree planting campaigns. ISKCON has held Vedic Ecology conventions and started organic farms promoting sustainability . And then there are more directly involved people like activist, author, and former Chipko participant Vandana Shiva who opposes biopiracy and genetically modified crops while working on behalf of downtrodden and exploited peoples. Each of these people whether individually or through organized efforts obey the commands of Vedic scriptures by revering and honoring Creation rather than subjugating it.
RESPECT NOT DOMINION
A person engaged in killing creatures, polluting wells, ponds, tanks and destroying gardens certainly goes to hell
– Padma Purana
A great misconception is that since humans were granted with superior intelligence they have free reign to dominate the Earth and a license to abuse and exploit Nature. We can all see that this attitude is foolish since Mother Nature can easily harm us at any moment with earthquakes, floods, and other ecological disasters. Anyone who thinks humanity has “dominion” over nature should try taming a volcanic eruption, a tsunami, or a tornado! We’ve also seen how cities that keep expanding outward and with the territory of wild animals being encroached upon on start posing a threat to communities – coyotes have wandered into businesses and elephants have trampled upon farm land. Lastly we’ve seen the huge negative impact of factory farms where millions of domesticated animals are crammed with no space to move. This approach to agriculture and slaughter causes massive water pollution, clear cutting of rain forest, in addition to causing massive health problems amongst the human population.
The scriptures state that natural resources are here for us to use responsibly. For example, the Sanskrit term shrivan
loosely translated means “forest of prosperity.” Besides using trees for fire and building homes, the forest also contains herbs that are highly prized in healing. Science has also backed up what our scriptures have already revealed on the role plants play in sustaining life according to one recent study. Nature also contributes to a devotee’s daily practice at home or the temple. Puja or temple offerings usually consist of fruits like coconut or bananas, or plants like lotus flowers or tulsi leaves (note: animal sacrifice is unnecessary; what one offers doesn’t count but rather the sincerity behind the offering). Bhagavad Gita 9:26 confirms the Divine’s acceptance of authentic piety and its ties to nature:
I accept a leaf, flower, fruit or water or whatever is offered with devotion.
According to the principle of shrivan Nature is here for us to use but we’re expected to use these resources responsibly. Clear cutting trees, polluting air, land, and water, overusing resources in excess, or slaughtering animals unnecessarily are prohibited as stated in Isa Upanisad:
Everything within this world is possessed by God pervading both the animate and the inanimate. Therefore one should only take one’s fair share and leave the rest to the Supreme.
Fall marks one of the largest Hindu high holidays – the Festival of Lights.
Diwali is a celebration of light over darkness and good triumphing over evil. The holiday is also celebrated by Sikhs, Jains, and some Buddhist communities as well.
The significance of Dipavali is a re-enacting of this banishing darkness from within yourself, of shaking yourself free from the sleep of ignorance, and waking up into the light of a new dawn of full awareness…And to remind you of this, each year the festival of lights is held during the darkest night. It comes as an annual reminder of what you have to do—banish darkness, bring in light, be full of light and revel in the Illumination. Fill yourself with the Light. Fill the whole world with light by your own being in it.
This month Dharma Deen Alliance explores the concept of divinity as being feminine. We will discuss its existence in both Hindu and Muslim traditions and elaborate on its deeper meaning and metaphysical significance. And just as Muslims fast for Ramadan, during Navratri Hindus fast for 9 days.
In this creation, I am one, and I am many as well, in various forms
– Srimad Devi Bhagavatam 6:11
I am the Father of the Universe, the Mother of the universe, the Creator of all
– Bhagavad Gita 9:17
The concept of the Divine being worshiped as a Holy Mother may seem strange as most people would say that God is gender-neutral and lacks human traits. The reality is that people of all faiths ascribe human-like qualities to the Creator. Some see God as vengeful and angry, punishing people through great floods, earthquakes, and plagues. Others view that same God as all-loving and forgiving, bestowing blessings and offering protection in times of need. Then there are those who (unfortunately) view the Absolute as a competitor, commanding followers to take out opponent religions through conversion or suppression. While most people agree that the Almighty has no gender they see no contradiction in using terms like “Father,” “Lord,” or “King.” So if it’s odd that God is worshiped as Mother to some, shouldn’t it then also be equally strange that fatherly characteristics are assigned to something that transcends human characteristics? This will be discussed more later.
The Abrahamic faiths, just like the dharmic religions, also have a concept of female divine energy. In Judaism the Hebrew shekhina means “presence of God” and is described as feminine. As in Hinduism, shekhina is characterized as inseparable from and a functional part of the Creator. When revelations such as the Ten Commandments were delivered to the prophets, it was transmitted through shekhina’s energy. In Catholicism, adherents honor the Virgin Mary as the mother of Divinity. The equivalent of shekhina in Arabic is sakina in Islam (see Part 2 for the Muslim perspective on this).
In dharmic traditions, sakina’s counterpart is referred to in Sanskrit as shakti. Shakti is the manifestation of cosmic power. It’s the divine force that creates and sustains the universe.
What is Navratri?
Navratri is a festival of nine nights. The tenth day generally culminates with feasting and marks the anniversary of when the Goddess Durga slayed Mahishasura, a demon that terrorized both Earth and the heavens. This narrative is also a metaphor with a deeper spiritual meaning. During these nine nights Hindus fast and appeal for spiritual wealth, knowledge, and strength in slaying their own personal Mahishasuras/demons such as pride, ignorance, or attachment to trivial matters of the world. These internal demons battle to steer the mind and soul away from its Higher purpose.
Why worship a Divine Mother?
In Sanskrit nirguna Brahman means the Supreme Divine without form and human qualities. The opposite is saguna Brahman which means Divine form with qualities. Worshipping God as Sacred Mother or Holy Father (saguna Brahman) does not necessarily mean rejecting a gender-neutral, formless Supreme Being (nirguna Brahman). Swami Sivananda once elaborated on this point: “it is easier to establish a conscious relationship…in terms of benevolent fatherhood or affectionate, kindly motherhood than by the concept of an unfathomable void.”
Building up devotional qualities by viewing Brahman in the same way a child adores his/her parents becomes much easier to grasp. Since life comes out of a mother’s womb the Creator is more accessible to one’s mental capacity when the universe is viewed as the womb of the Mother’s creation. For some seekers it would be hard to open their heart and mind to an abstract, formless Being, and since a child calls out for their mother in times of need, worshipers of the Goddess call out to their Holy Mother when longing for protection or peace of mind.
Shakti manifested in human form
South Asia has a long and rich history of women who are living examples of shakti. The Vedas, which are the foundational scriptures of Hindu culture contain several texts and prayers that were written by female sages. The famous mystic Ramakrishna learned meditation and shakti worship through his female guru Bharavi Brahmani. Before his passing, he appointed his wife Sarada Devi, also a devout worshiper of Mother Kali (a manifestation of Durga), to be his successor. Sarada Devi initiated anyone who approached her into the spiritual path regardless of social status or gender. She also made it her life’s work to build Vedanta centers all over the world and spread meditation practice to the masses. Anandamayi Ma, an advanced yoga practitioner set up temples in various cities and attracted students of all religions desirous of divine bliss. She’s mentioned in the book Autobiography of a Yogi. A more recent example is the “Hugging Saint.” Amma has traveled the globe embracing thousands of people for hours on end at public events. She preaches that devotion must be go hand in hand with the karmic act of helping the downtrodden. Environmental activist Vandana Shiva works on behalf of exploited peoples and is author of Vedic Ecology. Many examples of women both out in the public eye to women of strength privately acting behind the scenes abound, each beaming shakti in their daily life, serving humanity and executing dharma.
The Arabic term Allah is in fact a container term that holds within it all the diverse names of the Divinity throughout time. Traditionally Muslims use names for God such as “True”, “Ever-Living”, “Merciful”, “Compassionate”, “Subtle” and so on. These names are called the Asma ul-Husna, or the 99 Most Beautiful Names of God. This is by no means an exhaustive list, they are simply among the most prominent names used for God in the Qur’an, and can be used to invoke various aspects of Allah. Like the concept of yin-yang in Daoism, the Asma ul-Husna is made up of two complimentary sides, one being Jamal (Beautiful) and the other Jalal (Powerful). For example, God is both the Creator and the Destroyer, the Punisher and the Pardoner, the Kind and the Avenger, the Hidden and the Manifest, the Constrictor and the Expander, etc. Though appearing to contradict each other, they instead meet in the name Allah, which unites opposites.
Within Islam, God is the creator of everything, even that which we see as negative in the world. As in yin-yang, these can also be considered masculine and feminine aspects of one single Divine Essence, Jamal being in the feminine and Jalal being the masculine. Without reinforcing negative gender stereotypes, it is important to not take this literally to mean male and female in a dogmatic sense, but instead it is a way of unveiling the feminine within the divine, a subject often overlooked in the Islamic discourse. Speaking of and calling upon God using the Jamal names can be thought of as, in a sense, invoking the feminine qualities of God.
Beginning with the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), Islamic scholars and sages have expressed the central role of the feminine principle within the Din (religion). The Prophet famously said: “I was made to love three things from your world: women, perfume, and the comfort of my eye is in prayer.” Muslims have taken this hadith (prophetic saying) as one important indicator of the Prophet’s love of the feminine. Women are mentioned interestingly even before prayer, the sacred devotional act in Islam. The 13th century Spanish Sufi Ibn al-Arabi elaborated on this by saying that women are “the most complete and perfect contemplation of Reality”. And Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi says that, “The eternal mystery of Allah’s uncreated Essence is the Divine Feminine.” In another verse he says that “Woman is the radiance of God. She is the Creator.” Taken together, these verses offer a challenge to any patriarchal, male-centered interpretation of the Divine in Islam.
The start of my deeper journey into sanatan dharma wasn’t influenced by a guru, a spiritual master, or people in the desi community. It started with my exploration of the Black Civil Rights movement of the 60’s. Many of the leading figures and writers of this era referenced the glory of earliest and ancient Black civilizations going back into antiquity. From there I started to read the various chronicles written by Afrocentric scholars, historians, and archaeologists.
These historians wrote about the first humans out of Africa. They challenged widely held beliefs – that the Pyramids were built by whites, or that the first humans arose out of Europe. They detailed the grandeur of various African empires that later civilized the Greeks and Romans. When books on these subjects were first published they were dismissed as exaggerated fiction. We now see volumes of evidence being discovered by archaeologists that affirm the knowledge documented by leading Black academics. After learning how much rich history and heritage existed amongst the globe’s Black peoples and the high self esteem they held, I started reading books on indigenous America and then transitioned to Asian archaeology. I found out about similar pyramids and advanced cities that existed in ancient South Asia. And just as archaeologists and geneticists disproved theories that ancient Egypt was built by northern white Africans distinct from southern Black Africans, they also disproved theories that South Asia was “civilized” by fictitious invading white Aryans. Supposedly these invaders brought Sanskrit and the Vedas to northern India. From there I decided to study Hinduism in depth.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X was one of the first books that I read (and re-read) when researching the Black liberation movement. In several chapters Malcolm gives high praises to Gandhi and the people of India for their resistance against the British empire. Is it contradictory that a man regarded as a polarizing figure would praise Gandhi – someone historically known for being a pacifist? It shouldn’t be if one takes a closer look.
While Malcolm was passionately loyal to his sect he had no problem praising those of outside religions. Several times in his autobiography, Minister X praised the people of India not only for their revolutionary spirit but also for being deeply “religious brown people” – a term that included Hindu revolutionaries. He openly supported liberation for all colonized peoples and frequently connected the struggles of Asian, African, Latino, and indigenous peoples to a common cause.
Even though Malcolm was portrayed as an advocate for violence he was never charged with any acts of unlawful behavior during his time as a minister. When learning that a Black man had been victim to police brutality and then imprisoned, Malcolm didn’t demand his followers to pick up rifles. Instead he ordered his men to peacefully assemble in front of the police station. Malcolm then negotiated with the police chief to get the injured man medical treatment. Tactics like these were not all that different from methods used by people like Martin Luther King, Jr.
Lastly, Malcolm X wasn’t one of those people who merely advertised his religious identity. He observed his tradition’s principles and ensured that this was reflected in his lifestyle. While remembered for his fiery oratorical skills, Malcolm’s unswerving commitment to personal conduct tends to be ignored. Like Nat Turner, Geronimo, or Gandhi, Malcolm X knew that personal discipline should go hand-in-hand with transformation of the greater society. He abstained from alcohol, obeyed his religion’s tenets, and executed worship on a regular basis. He also promoted proper speech and once stated that people who curse do so because they’re not intelligent enough to articulate their thoughts properly. More importantly, he knew that serving others required self sacrifice. Finally, Malcolm preached cleanliness, mimicking many religious creeds of being next to Godliness (daily bathing is a necessary and ritual practice for a person dedicated to the spiritual path).
Reading Malcolm X, learning how he conducted himself while learning more about Hinduism helped me refine myself in executing dharma. Malcolm knew that he represented something both great and misunderstood so he made sure to present himself clean-cut in appearance and eloquent in speech. Because he knew his beliefs came under intense scrutiny he made sure to study as many books as he could as to answer any criticism intelligently. As a practitioner, I know there are a lot of misconceptions about Hinduism and animosity directed at dharmic traditions. After reading multiple versions of Hindu books with different commentaries and implementing practices in daily life, I came to the conclusion that this path was best suited for me. Seeing how Black scholars knew so much about their history and traditions I decided I also needed to know my tradition and religious heritage inside and out. In essence, part of the reason Dharma Deen Alliance exists is to share knowledge and answer all the misconceptions.
Is personal conduct unimportant and unrelated to advancing a broader cause? A person steeped in material excess may think leading a disciplined lifestyle like Malcolm X led lacks joy. But I can say from personal experience that I’ve seen people immersed in consistent spiritual practice experience a greater calm and happiness than those attached to immediate stimulation of the senses. Activities like shopping, eating junk food, watching TV, or getting drunk certainly provide a nice temporary relief. But they can’t permanently eliminate stress or anxiety. And if anyone made that realization it was Malcolm X. A former hustler who used drugs and frequently looked for ways to make and spend money, he then turned his life around and experienced much greater peace and stability through regular devotion.
And if someone like Malcolm Little can emerge from a vile background and generate so much clarity then it shows us what a powerful impact the path to Higher truth can have.
…my religion is my personal business. It governs my personal life, my personal morals. And my religious philosophy is personal between me and the God in whom I believe…put your religion at home in the closet. Keep it between you and your God. – Malcolm X, the Ballot or the Bullet
Many are the names of God and infinite the forms through which He may be approached.
If you must be mad, be it not for the things of the world. Be mad with the love of God.
My journey into Islamic spirituality began during my early college years, ushered in thanks in part to the influence of Shaykh Nur al-Jerrahi (Lex Hixon). He was a student of both Bawa Muhaiyaddeen and Shaykh Muzaffer Ozak, yet his spiritual awakening occurred after discovering Sri Ramakrishna, a Bengali saint who lived in the late 19th century. Sri Ramakrishna’s pluralistic religiosity was to give Shaykh Nur a key to enter a variety of religious contexts, realizing that, with unwavering devotion, each potentially leads to spiritual awakening.
It was fitting then that I first encountered Sri Ramakrishna in Hixon’s book, Great Swan, a poetic and mesmerizing masterpiece that gives the reader a taste of what it must have been like to sit at the feet of the great Bengali sage. While reading Great Swan I experienced almost a type of “bilocation”, as if transported to Sri Ramakrishna’s time and place, knowing perfectly well that I was sitting in Chicago reading the pages of the book. As absurd as it sounds, I became completely absorbed in the experience, oblivious to what was happening around me. Very rarely have I had such a powerful experience while reading, including while engrossed in books from my own faith.
Growing up simplistically thinking of Islam and Hinduism as very different, perhaps incompatible religions, Sri Ramakrishna gave me – like he did for Hixon before me, a way to challenge my assumptions and allow for a more open, compassionate approach towards other faiths. This did not mean that I wished to become a Hindu myself, but I knew that Sri Ramakrishna, who was a lifelong devotee of Mother Kali, could also see a reflection of his own tradition in other world religions like Islam. In fact, for a short time he practiced Islam, while still returning to his own way.
Toward the end of 1866 he began to practise the disciplines of Islam. Under the direction of his Mussalman guru he abandoned himself to his new sādhana. He dressed as a Mussalman and repeated the name of Allah.
His prayers took the form of the Islamic devotions. He forgot the Hindu gods and goddesses – even Kali – and gave up visiting the temples. He took up his residence outside the temple precincts. After three days he saw the vision of a radiant figure, perhaps Mohammed. This figure gently approached him and finally lost himself in Sri Ramakrishna. Thus he realized the Mussalman God. Thence he passed into communion with Brahman. The mighty river of Islam also led him back to the Ocean of the Absolute.”
What was it that a young Muslim male like me found in Sri Ramakrishna that was so powerful? In part, it was his expansive view of religion, and initially his short experiment with Islam, which came during his time experiencing different paths of worship, primarily in Hinduism. As an extension of his own evolution, and to prove that Islam could lead to enlightenment as much as these many Hindu paths, Sri Ramakrishna delved into its practice.
The other thing that pulled me into the world of Sri Ramakrishna was seeing how deeply alive and aware he was in each and every moment. He encountered all types of people and situations in a way that was spontaneous and subtle. There is one definition of a Sufi in Islam that quite appropriately fits Sri Ramakrishna, and that is that a Sufi is a “child of the moment”. Sri Ramakrishna embodied this quality in a way that confounded and confused those around him, especially ones less aware of the spiritual dimensions of life. Yet, hidden within each of his encounters was a wisdom and deep love for all.
Sri Ramakrishna appeared outwardly almost child-like, acting with little concern for outward appearances. His sole duty was to awaken those around him, compassionate and receptive to the Divine will and not his own ego identification. He was often lost in samadhi, a meditative state that made him lose consciousness of the world, and become absorbed in a silent bliss. At other times, he would be ecstatic, dancing frantically and singing devotional songs with devotees and visitors. He could be gentle and encouraging, and conversely angry and biting. He could elaborate great esoteric truths and then act as if he knew nothing at all. None of these actions contradicted because all were done quite deliberately by a man who was fully alive at each moment in time. In The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, the primary text chronicling his words and deeps, there are many examples of this constant fluctuation in behavior such as this:
While dancing, Sri Ramakrishna every now and then went into deep samādhi. When he was in the deepest samādhi he could not utter a word and his whole body remained transfixed. The devotees danced encircling him. After a while, regaining partial consciousness, he danced with the strength of a lion, intoxicated with ecstatic love. But even then he could not utter a word. Finally, regaining more of the consciousness of the world, he sang again, improvising the lines.
In fact, Sri Ramakrishna did not believe in linear time and the outward world that we cling so tightly to as filtered through the five senses. There is in fact a spiritual reality far more real than this apparently solid reality. He said that “seventy percent” of our awareness should be focused on God at all times, even while going about our daily lives. This greater reality is impossible to describe, though available experientially with the right level of longing and devotion. The example of this humble Bengali sage taught me to enter fully into my own religious life, much as Sri Ramakrishna gave himself without restraint to his. In each moment I have to experience the Divine in a fresh, insightful way, cognizant of the Qur’anic verse that, “Wherever you turn, there is the Face of God.” (2:115)
Fasting is Mine and it I who give reward for it. A man gives up his sexual passion, his food and his drink for my sake. Fasting is like a shield, and he who fasts has two joys: a joy when he breaks his fast and a joy when he meets his Lord. The change in the breath of the mouth of him who fasts is better in Allah’s estimation than the smell of musk.
– Hadith Qudsi
For Muslims, fasting is not simply an exercise in bodily cleansing or asceticism. The focus cannot be on the individual’s physical body and health alone. Since Islam is centered on the principle of Tawhid, or Spiritual Unity, the body must of course be taken into account, and yet to focus on it alone is to obscure the profound depth of spiritual meanings within the fast. Unlike a materialistically centered fast, the ultimate goal for a Muslim is to use the experience, not only to benefit oneself, but also to cultivate compassion and love on a global scale.
The Arabic term for fasting, Sawm, is one of the five pillars of the faith, meaning that it is one of the practices that unites Muslims regardless of ideological and geographical differences. The term literally means “to abstain”, what on the most basic level means obtaining from sunrise to sunset from food, drink and sex. From there, one also should control anger and stop all backbiting, lying, cheating, stealing, jealousy, greed and other negative qualities. As one refines their fast, eventually the ego is subsumed and the mind finds tranquility in a state of Taqwa, or God-Consciousness.
Fasting is ordained for healthy individuals old enough and mentally sound enough to practice safely. It is done in the month of Ramadan, when the first verses of the Qur’an descended to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) through the Angel Gabriel. It is also practiced before Ramadan in the months of Rajab and Shaban, the month of Shawwal following Ramadan, the Day of Arafat, Ashura, in the middle of the lunar month and each Monday and Thursday. To avoid extreme asceticism, it is not permitted to fast every day of the year. The Prophet (pbuh) said, “There is no reward for fasting for the one who perpetually fasts.”
I pass the night with my Lord: He giveth me food and drink. Hunger is God’s food whereby He revives the bodies of the siddiqs, in hunger God’s food reaches [them].
– The Prophet (pbuh)
To fast truly is to experience nourishment of the spirit, transcending the momentary pains of the body. Since the body exists in time, being born, deteriorating and dying, to live for bodily pleasure alone cannot truly satisfy. The Prophet (pbuh) suggests that intimacy with God provides a type of food that paradoxically feeds one who obtains from external food and drink. Fasting only makes sense from a spiritual perspective since growing the spirit is the goal, even as the body might suffer.
Fasting leads to non-existence, for, after all, all joys are there.
God is with those who patiently persevere [2:249].
– Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi
With patience and perseverance, the initial annoyance, pain and discomfort of fast gives way to a profound inner peace. This tranquility of heart is found only after self-centeredness diminishes. When the endless desires and worldly preoccupations are gone, God is most manifest. The human becomes transparent and the light of God is able to shine through.
The real fast is the blossoming of the inner heart.
– Bawa Muhaiyaddeen
To reiterate, the end goal of fasting for a Muslim must not be simply going hungry or playing up one’s piety for others. Like other religious communities, Muslims fast in community, not for their own reasons, spiritual or otherwise, but for the healing of the world. Since God made us from a single soul, our spiritual path must also be pursued with that singularity in mind. The heart of the world is in the heart of the human, and the heart of the human is in the heart of the world. We fast so that both hearts can be purified and transformed.
controlling the mind with determination, giving up the objects of sense gratification…who eats little and controls the body and the tongue…such a person is certainly elevated to the position of Self-realization.
– Bhagavad Gita 18:52-54
One draws the energy from the vital plane instead of depending upon physical substance.
– Sri Aurobindo, answering a disciple’s question “How is it possible to have such energy without food?”
Before going into the Hindu perspective on fasting here are two things one should keep in mind:
Avoid overeating after a fast: After breaking a fast not only are large food portions an unhealthy shock to the digestive tract, gorging makes one forget about empathizing with the poor. The less fortunate don’t have the luxury of going to a buffet after being hungry all day. In addition, one of the objectives of fasting is to control sense gratification. Overindulgence on food defeats this goal. Instead, try to avoid feasts or buffets and instead opt for a light or regular-sized meal instead.
Avoid fasting for ego: One shouldn’t brag or feel proud about fasting. If a person can fast with ease they should keep it to themselves. Remember – the goal is to serve a higher purpose not impress others.
In Hinduism, fasting is encouraged and prescribed as a means of worship. Sanskrit words for fasting include upavasa (moving up/near God) and vrat (self discipline or vow). Since the body and mind are constantly seeking stimulation fasting gives the senses a break and a chance for the soul to reconnect with the Creator. Disciplining the physical senses leads to spiritual advancement. Practicing the spiritual path on a bloated stomach or with constant attention to food can be a hindrance to progress. On the other hand, fasting done correctly and regularly removes mental, physical, and spiritual impurities.
Hindus are encouraged to fast habitually by picking one day of the week and abstaining on that day throughout the year. Other sects pick 2-3 days out of a month based on the lunar calendar and perform upavasa then. Most people fast on major holidays and festivals.
A general vrat in Hinduism lasts 24 hours, usually from sunrise to sunrise. There are a few holidays that are shorter (sunrise to sunset), and there are some that are much longer. For instance Navratri, which starts 8 October this year, is a festival that lasts for nine days. More dedicated devotees may carry out a 30 day fast for certain auspicious months. Of course, the most ardent, disciplined, and highly advanced seekers have trained themselves to go without food or water for much, much longer periods. Some are so blissful from God-consciousness that they have to be reminded to eat.
In the dharmic traditions there are various degrees to fasting. A practitioner is advised to perform based on what they’re able to handle. Some eat only fruits, nuts, and dairy. Others eat only one meal a day. The more experienced abstain from food and water. Regardless of which method a person chooses, what counts is the sincerity in the devotion and the effort to bring the senses under control.
Both loosely defined mean “righteousness” or “path” – specifically the spiritual path. A true devotee’s goal is following this path – not wasting time on petty issues, not rivalry about which religion is superior, not bothering with extremist ideology, or seeking converts. A devout Hindu must follow dharma, while a devout Muslim must follow deen. Dharma Deen Alliance is a blog run by two aspirants on their respective paths to Higher Truth, and it will explore scriptural law, proper living, and devotional love.
In addition, Dharma Deen Alliance will counter the misconception that Hinduism and Islam cannot co-exist together. Because of our South Asian backgrounds we’re especially bothered by the consistent focus in the news about violence between Hindus and Muslims. We’ll post news stories ignored by the media documenting unity between both communities. Working and living together peacefully with no quarrel, taking care of each others’ temples and mosques, and celebrating holidays and festivals side by side. And we’ll honor the lives of saints and seekers who worked to reconcile both paths such as Shirdi Sai Baba, Guru Nanak, Kabir, Ramakrishna, and numerous others.