Sikhism: The Fifth Largest Religion in the World

Sikhism symbol

Sikhism: A Tradition Striving for Unity and Truth

Sikhism guru_nanak
Guru Nanak

Sikhism is the fifth largest religion in the world(one of the fastest growing, too) and originated in Northern India in 1469. Sikhis (meaning disciple or learner) are monotheistic, believe in the unity and equality of all mankind, engage in selfless service, and strive for the prosperity of all life. There are over 25 millions Sikhis in the world.

Sikhism originated in a guru tradition in 1469; Guru Nanak was the first to establish what because a religious tradition over the course of centuries. Ten gurus followed in Guru Nanak’s footsteps and after the death of the tenth guru, Guru Gobind Singh, the Guru Granth Sahib became the literal embodiment of the eternal, impersonal guru and serves as a guide for Sikhi’s.

The Ten Sikhi Gurus (each represents a divine attribute) are:

  1. Guru Nanak – Humility
  2. Guru Angad – Obedience
  3. Guru Amar Das – Equality
  4. Guru Ram Das – Service
  5. Guru Arjan – Self-sacrifice
  6. Guru Hargobind – Justice
  7. Guru Har Rai – Mercy
  8. Guru Harkrishan – Purity
  9. Guru Tegh Bahadur – Tranquility
  10. Guru Gobind Singh – Royal Courage

A couple of the Sikhi gurus are also Bhakti saints giving Hinduism an interesting relationship with the origins of the Sikh religion. The goal of the Sikhi is unison with the divine and they believe that no one tradition has a monopoly on the divine and emphasizes the “five thieves” of god’s presence: lust, rage, greed, attachment and conceit.

The Origins of Sikhism

Sikhism was created in the Punjab region, which is between India and Pakistan. In the time of the first Guru, Guru Nanak, there were two competing religions of the Muslims and Hindus. Legend says Nanak went into a river at 28, proclaimed there is no Hindu or Muslim, only god and that he continued to bring Sikhism into the world.

The 5th Guru, Arjan was a scholar and helped to build the Sikh religion by creating the first scripture. However, he was seen as a threat by the state and executed for his faith in 1606.

The 6th Guru, Hargobind eventually moved to militarize the community and the Sikhs learned to fight to preserve their faith. They became relatively peaceful until Tegh Bahadur, the 9th guru, was executed in 1675 by Aurangzeb, the Moghal Emperor. The Moghal Empire consolidated Islam in South Asia, and spread Muslim (and particularly Persian) arts and culture as well as the faith.

The 10th Guru, Gobind Singh, created the Khalsa as a military group so that they could forever defend their faith.

The Sikhs continued to rebel against Muslim oppression and eventually became a state of their own. But then they were defeated by the British. Then they became peaceful for a while, until 1919 when there was a massacre of over 400 dead and 1,000 wounded by British soldiers who fired on a crowd of protesters. A few historians signify this event as the beginning of the decline of the British Empire in India.

The Sikhi god: Ik Onkar

Ik Onkar is the Sikhi word for god and means ‘all pervading spirit’. This spirit has no gender, is beyond time and space, is without form, beyond the comprehension of humans, but not completely unknowable. The spirit is visible sikhism_ik_onkareverywhere to the spiritually awakened through the heart or “inner eye”. The religion prescribes meditation to allow for communication between god and man.

The Opening Line of the Mool Mantar:

“There is but one all-pervading spirit, and truth is its name! It exists in all creation; it does not fear; it does not hate; it is timeless and universal and self-existent, you will come to know it through seeking knowledge and learning!”

The ultimate goal of a Sikh is to be completely united with god. They achieve this state of liberation (mukti) by focusing on god rather than themselves.

Maya: the Worldly Illusion

Maya is a spiritual concept that has evolved over time and crosses over nearly every eastern religion in one way or another. Literally, Maya means delusion, extraordinary illusions of power, the veil of perception, magic, and “unreality”.

These worldly illusions are viewed as a direct opponent of realizing god in this lifetime (the goal of the Sikh is to realize god). It is believed that the object of Maya, or object of the senses, lust, desire, attachment, ego, greed, and anger which are known as the 5 thieves and are believed to take away from the individual’s relationship with god by distracting and hurting the individual.

Once god is fully realized, the individual is considered jivanmukta and liberated in this lifetime, which is a belief also shared in Hinduism. After this liberation, the individual is ceaselessly united with Brahman (the supreme truth underlying all of reality, but hidden by it). Sikhs also believe in reincarnation and karma.

The Khalsa – the Nation of Sikhs

The Khalsa is the collective body of all Sikhs. The Khalsa was initiated on March 30 1699 by Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth and last Sikh guru. The word Khalsa means “sovereign”, “free”, or most often “pure”. Being initiated into the Khalsa is a type of baptism and males are entitled Singhs (lion) while females are titled Kaurs (princess).

The Khalsa is responsible for all executive, military, and civil authority in the Sikh society. They are considered the pinnacle of Sikhism and perform no rituals and believe in no superstitions. They only believe in god who is the master and creator of all, the only destroyer/creator.

A Sikh is defined as any human being who faithfully believes in one immortal being; ten gurus, from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh, the teachings of the ten gurus and the baptism bequeathed by the tenth guru.

Culture, Observations, and Rituals of Sikhism

Most Sikhs wake up early to meditate on the name of god. Then he/she bathes in a pool of nectar (I’m not really sure what this means, probably some type of sweet herbs and spices). Then he chants the name of the lord. All sins, misdeeds, and negativity is erased through this process. When the sun rises, the Sikh is to meditate on the name of god again. The idea of the Sikh’s existence is to worship god so that they can maintain a close relationship to god.

There are 5 K’s(panj kakaar) or articles of faith that baptized Sikhs are obligated to wear:

  1. Kesh – uncut hair, usually tied and wrapped in a Dastar (a style of turban)
  2. Kanga – a wooden comb, usually under the dastar
  3. Kachera – cotton undergarments worn by both sexes to symbolize chastity
  4. Kara – an iron bracelet, a weapon and a symbol of eternity
  5. Kirpan – an iron dagger of differing sizes. In the UK it is very small and in Punjab it can be up to three feet long.

Sikhs are also very interested in music, many instruments were supposedly created by gurus. These instruments include the Rebab, the dilruba, the taus, the jori, and the sarinda. They would often play drums or Nagaras while marching into battle.

The Modern Sikh and Sikh Statistics

There are about 27 million Sikhs worldwide and 83% live in India. 76% live in Punjab where they form Modern_Sikh2/3rds of the populace. Sikhs were some of the first to migrate to Britain from India and were used in the Indian Civil service and so were spread out over the entire British empire. Many have spread throughout Europe and Northern America.

The caste system is still very prevalent within the Sikh religion, even though their gurus denounced the system. Untouchables, or Dalits still face harsh discrimination.

The first gurdwara (place of worship) was established in the United States in Stockton, California.

Discrimination against Sikhs has risen since the 9/11 attacks. They are said to be often confused with Arabic or Muslim Middle Eastern men because of their turbans and CNN suggested an increase in hate Crimes against Sikh men after the attacks. I’ll leave it to a few clips from CNN and other news to show you what I mean by discrimination (it involves racism and persecution because of ignorance).

  • The U.S. has the highest murder rate of affluent democracies. America had an extreme homicide rate of 5.4 per 100,000 people in 2008-2009, compared with a 1.43 rate in England and Wales and a 1.3 rate in Italy. Japan has 1/10 of the murders of the US. Don’t be surprised about how often this happens.
  • [September 24th, 2013] A Columbia University professor who wrote about hate crimes against Sikhs may have become a victim of one himself when 12 to 15 people attacked him while shouting anti-Muslim slurs, police said.
    Prabhjot Singh, a Sikh and a professor of international and public affairs, said the attackers were yelling “get Osama” and “terrorist” when they swarmed him Saturday night near Central Park in New York.
    “There were about 20 of them. A few surrounded me, and started punching me,” Singh said, according to the Sikh Coalition. He suffered injuries to his face, including displaced teeth and a possible fracture in his lower jaw. CNN ARTICLE
  • [August 5th, 2012] There was a shooting of 6 people in Wisconsin in a hate crime on August 5th 2012. ‘He said members described the attacker as a bald, white man, dressed in a white T-shirt and black pants and with a 9/11 tattoo on one arm — which “implies to me that there’s some level of hate crime there”.’The gunman started shooting in the parking lot, then entered into the temple and proceeded to open fire. Most of the victims were leaders of the church, men with turbans. CNN ARTICLE
  • [September 13th, 2015] A Sikh American man says he was taunted as a “terrorist” and “bin Laden” by another driver this week, and then beaten unconscious in his car. Police in the Chicago suburb of Darien are investigating the alleged incident as a hate crime and a road rage incident that escalated into a violent attack, Chief Ernest Brown said. CNN ARTICLE
  • [January 6th, 2016] A $10,000 reward is being offered in the slaying of a 68-year-old Sikh man brutally murdered in a central Fresno convenience store on New Year’s Day. They have video of a light-skinned suspect between 16 and 18 with a red hoodie that waited outside for about 5 minutes for a man named Gill to be in the store alone. Once Gill (Sikh man without any Sikh attire on) was within about a foot, the suspect stabbed Gill repeatedly. Gill tried to push himself away, retreated and picked up a golf club. The suspect knocked Gill to the ground before returning to the cash register, which he could not open. He then took something from a shelf and walked out of the store in the same direction from which he approached. Gill died of his wounds minutes later. Sikhs were anxious about heading back out into the community because of another attack that occurred on December 26th. FRENSO BEE ARTICLE
  • [March 2nd, 2016] Balwinder Jit Singh says a passenger beat him while calling him a terrorist and a suicide bomber last year in Inglewood. YAHOO NEWS ARTICLE

So this is very real, and its happening right now. This article from THE INTERCEPT talks about how Donald Trumps campaign makes it extremely hard on Sikh’s because hatred and violence are condoned. These are Americans that are discriminated against in our own country. And in lots of cases the police turn a blind eye, refuse to investigate, or whatever nonsense racism and ignorance they can make up. But this seems to happen a lot and we, as a nation, should not allow this kind of intolerance or ignorance. This is the 5th largest religion in the world!

 

References:
  1. Institute of Sikh Studies
  2. Sikhs dot-org
  3. BBC Religion
  4. Sikh Coalition
  5. Sikh Net
  6. Maya Wikipedia
  7. Sikhism Wikipedia
  8. Religion Facts

Looking Back to Asia

Buddha in the Shwedagon (Free Yoga Photo) by Elliot Telford

Remembering 15 Weeks in Asia

I feel very lucky to have gotten through the entire trip throughout Asia without more than a couple of bruises and an empty bank account. India and Thailand were the highlights of the trip and Kathmandu, Nepal and Myanmar both beckon return journeys of significant lengths of time.

The trip began in Mysore India in late January and ended in mid-May flying out of Hanoi, Vietnam. Most of the below photos are from the first three months of the trip in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Thailand… enjoy!

PS: You can click on the photos for enlarged images, they are big

Cast Bronze Shiva for sale by Elliot Telford

Cast Bronze Shiva for sale
Strangers in Dhaka by Elliot Telford
Strangers in Dhaka
A Poor Smile by Elliot Telford
A Big Impoverished Smile
Poverty in Bangladesh by Elliot Telford
Poverty in Bangladesh
Dhaka city street by Elliot Telford
Dhaka city street
Dhaka Bangladesh by Elliot Telford
Dhaka, Bangladesh
Homes in Mysore by Elliot Telford
Homes in Mysore
Village in Dhaka by Elliot Telford
Village in Dhaka
Neighbrohood Alleyway in Mysore by Elliot Telford
Neighbrohood Alleyway in Mysore
Rickshaw in Bandladesh by Elliot Telford
Rickshaw in Bandladesh
Buddha in the Shwedagon by Elliot Telford
Buddha in the Shwedagon
Temple in Nepal by Elliot Telford
Temple in Nepal
Spires of the Shwedagon by Elliot Telford
Spires of the Shwedagon
Kathmandu, Nepal by Elliot Telford
Kathmandu, Nepal
Dhaka Street by Elliot Telford
Dhaka Street
The Shwedagon by Elliot Telford
The Shwedagon
Monks at the Shwedagon Pagoda by Elliot Telford
Monks at the Shwedagon Pagoda

IMG_9552

Mysore Hindu Temple by Elliot Telford
Mysore Hindu Temple
River in Thailand by Elliot Telford
River in Thailand
Street Construction in Mysore by Elliot Telford
Street Construction in Mysore
Alleyway in Mysore by Elliot Telford
Alleyway in Mysore
Gangsters in Kathmandu by Elliot Telford
Gangsters in Kathmandu
Laundry in Mysore by Elliot Telford
Laundry in Mysore
School kids in Kathmandu (pre-earthquake) by Elliot Telford
School kids in Kathmandu (pre-earthquake)
Indian man thinking by Elliot Telford
Indian man thinking
Indian man riding bike by Elliot Telford
Indian man riding bike
The Jois Shala Wall
The Jois Shala Wall (practiced here for 3 months)
Mysore Alleyway by Elliot Telford
Mysore Alleyway
South Indian Construction by Elliot Telford
South Indian Construction
Mysore River by Elliot Telford
Mysore River
Gokulam Coconut Stand by Elliot Telford
Gokulam Coconut Stand
Chakra House in Gokulam by Elliot Telford
Chakra House in Gokulam

Krishnamacharya

"Tirumalai Krishnamacharya" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tirumalai_Krishnamacharya.png#/media/File:Tirumalai_Krishnamacharya.png

Krishnamacharya is one of the more interesting figures in the paradigm of modern yoga’s founders. He probably had the greatest effect on the types of yoga that we practice today in the west and he healed many people during the course of his life. He used Ayurveda in conjunction with yoga to restore health and well-being to the individuals he treated and he wrote four books on yoga. He might have invented vinyasa flow as we know it today.

Tirumalai Krishnamacharya lived for 100 years; was born in 1888 and died in 1989. During his lifetime he taught many of the world’s most renowned yoga teachers: BKS Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, TKV Desikachar (his son), and A.G Mohan (worked alongside Desikachar).

Krishnamacharya had a traditional childhood; when he was six he underwent upanayaya when he learnt to write and read Sanskrit, chant the Vedas, and learnt asana and pranayama from his father. When he was 10, Krishnamacharya’s father died and his family moved to his grandfather’s house in Mysore. In Mysore Krishnamacharya attended more advanced schooling and began traveling around India when he was in Mysore.

When he was 18 he moved to Benares to study logic and sanskrit, but would visit Mysore again at 21 to study at the university of Mysore. He would continue to study and practice his yoga in Mysore and Benares until he walked 2 and a half months to the base of Mount Kailash in Tibet, where Brahmachari lived with his family. Krishnamacharya spent 7 & 1/2 years studying under his guru and took payment of teaching yoga, having a family, and maintaining a household.

Krishnamacharya returned to the world and traveled to Varnasi, where he did menial labor for a time until his knowledge was recognized and he was introduced to various nobility for his healing and yogic knowledge and skills. The Maharaja of Mysore took particular interest in Krishnamacharya and installed the yoga teacher in his palace in Mysore. Krishnamacharya would move on to perform lectures all over India, stimulating interest in yoga and eventually was able to start a yoga shala in Mysore.

While in Mysore, Krishnamacharya authored several books and taught yoga consistently, a guru to many of the world’s future gurus. Many scholars also place emphasis on some of  Krishnamacharya’s sources, saying that he used books referencing western gymnastics in many of his exercises. In 1946 India gained its independence, but this was bad news for Krishnamacharya; he was forced to travel to find students and to support his family. His yoga school eventually closed in 1960.

The remainder of Krishnamacharya’s life was spent in scholarship; he viewed himself as an eternal student. When he was 96 he fractured his hip, but refused surgery to treat himself while in bed. He lived and taught in Chennai until he died in 1989, at the ripe age of 100. Even though Krishnamacharya’s teachings radically changed the world he never left his homeland of India. He is one of the most influential figures in yoga; it is possible that he even invented modern yoga as it is known today; he was a learned scholar with degrees in philosophy, logic, divinity, philology, and music; and you might have heard of him. He is certainly one of the most influential individuals of the modern age.

 

Krishna Pattabhi Jois

k pattabhi jois

Krishna Pattabhi Jois is the founder of the Ashtanga style of yoga and one of the most influential yoga teachers to have brought yoga to the west through the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, India. I studied there in January 2015.

Jois was born on a full moon in 1915 in Kowshika in southern India. His father was a member of the Brahmin caste and Jois was taught rituals and Sanskrit from the age of 5. When he was 12 he attended a demonstration from Tirumalai Krishnamacharya and became his student the following day. Jois never told his family that he was practicing yoga, but would wake up early, practice, then go to school.

When Jois was 15 he ran away from home to head to Mysore to study Sanskrit. 2 years later, he was reunited with Krishnamacharya in Mysore when the older teacher came to heal the Maharaja of a sickness that no one else could cure. He would accompany Krishnamacharya in demonstrations at the established palace shala and continued to teach the yoga sequence that he learned from Krishnamacharya, the Ashtanga yoga method and continued to study under Krishnamacharya until 1953. He also claimed to be BKS Iyengar’s guru, which Iyengar refuted.

Jois married at 18 and in 1948 moved to Lakshmipuram (a beautiful suburb of Mysore) where they had three children: Saraswathi (who I studied with in Mysore), Manju, and Ramesh. Jois was a professor at the Sanskrit college, but eventually left to teach yoga full-time. In 1964, a Belgian named André Van Lysebeth wrote a text called “j’apprends le Yoga” (I taught myself yoga) and this is what started the spread of yoga to the West. Students from all over the world would come to study with Jois including Richard Freeman, Chuck Miller, David Life, Larry Schutlz, Bryan Kest, Gwyneth Paltrow, and even Sting. Many of these people would bring yoga into the west in their own forms of the Ashtanga yoga practice.

Eventually Jois moved from his 8 person shala in Lakshmipuram to a larger shala in Gokulam, which is where I studied with Saraswathi Jois. He wrote several books and died of natural causes on May 9th, 2009 at age 93.

Jois will forever have a footprint on the world of yoga; indeed many practitioners continue to study with his grandson Sharath Jois and daughter Saraswathi at the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Gokulam.

Many have claimed that Jois was inappropriate with his adjustments, but this could have been a result of major cultural differences between the cultural standards of the US and Jois’ traditional upbringing. However, it is confirmed that Jois injured several students with his adjustments, including one woman who he broke both meniscus’.

The Ashtanga method is well known for its high rate of injury, most likely due to its optimization around the Indian body type, from which there are quite large deviations, especially in the west. One survey put the rate of injury rate at 62% for Ashtanga practitioners, however, Bikram Yoga and Iyengar Yoga have both had serious backlash from the media for causing injury. Iyengar’s students also incurred injuries such as one student who wrote a letter to William J Broad for his book, The Science of Yoga: “One of the saddest and most thoughtful letters came from an elderly man who studied with Iyengar in India for 16 years. His list of personal injuries included torn ligaments, damaged vertebrae, slipped disks, deformed knees and ruptured blood vessels in his brain.” Bikram, in particular, has been known to cause large amounts of injury and the founder himself has two rape charges against him. It is undoubtable that the competitive spirit of yoga in the west contributes to this high rate of injury and lack of respect for the body’s limitations.

Pattabhi Jois helped to spread yoga to the west as one of the pioneers of the exercise. His memory will be forever remembered by the tradition he began and the students whose lives he changed with his spiritual practice of the Ashtanga method and philosophical Hindu and Sanskrit doctrines accompanying the physical yoga that he taught.

 

BKS Iyengar

BKS iyengar

Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar also known simply as BKS Iyengar, or Iyengar has been one of the foremost teachers of yoga in the 20th and especially in the 21st century. He is the founder of the style of yoga called Iyengar Yoga and passed at the age of 95 on August 20th 2014. He was also one of the students of Krishnamacharya who is considered the father of modern yoga.

He was born in 1918 in Bellur, Karnataka. Iyengar had a tough childhood; he was often sick with various illnesses including: influenza, malaria, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, and was generally malnourished. His family was a part of a priestly brahmin caste and when he was five he moved to Bangalore. About four years later, his father died.

Iyengar’s life shifted when he was 15 and his brother-in-law Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya asked him to come to Mysore to improve his health through yoga practice. This steadily improved his health until he was 18 and Krishnamacharya asked Iyengar to move to Pune to continue to spread the teachings of yoga. During the

krishnamacharyas yoga school in Mysore
krishnamacharya’s yoga school in Mysore

three years that he studied with Krishnamacharya he had a troubled relationship with his brother-in-law; he was forced to do household chores and wasn’t treated as a serious student at first. Occasionally Krishnamacharya would tell Iyengar not to eat until he finished a series of complex postures. These experiences vastly impacted the Iyengar style of yoga and is one of the reasons it is so different from the semi-traditional Ashtanga that Krishnamacharya taught Pattabhi Jois (the age of the modern ashtanga practice is questionable). Pattabhi Jois also claimed that he, not Krishnamacharya, was BKS Iyengar’s guru though this was refuted by Iyengar. Together, they are the most prominent teachers in the lineage of Krishnamacharya.

Iyengar moved to Pune at the age of 18 to begin his teaching career. He spent hours each day practicing, learning, and experimenting with different techniques. He taught several celebrities and even taught the queen of Belgium Sirsasana (headstand) when she was 80.

Yehudi Menuhin was the one that brought Iyengar to prominence in 1952. He asked Iyengar to teach him yoga and believed that yoga helped his violin playing, which he was very good at. After receiving instruction, Menuhin brought Iyengar to Switzerland and afterwards Iyengar taught regularly in the West. Now hundreds of Iyengar style yoga centers are located around the world.

Iyengar wrote 14 books, the first of which was “Light on Yoga” which is one of my favorite references for pranayama, asana, and principles of yogic philosophy. His book on the yoga sutras is excellent as well and I highly recommend them to teachers and students of yoga.

Iyengar’s style is gentler than most others, focusing on alignment and the use of props to assist in yoga poses. This is likely due to his interactions with Krishnamacharya. He also injured his spine in a scooter accident, which is likely why he often made use of props for his students. Iyengar had a profound personal practice and even at 90 would practice yoga for up to three hours per day. He was also a regular practitioner of Ayurveda.

Iyengar won several awards before his death in August 2014 from heart failure in Pune, India. This included a gold medal from Krishnamacharya called Yoga Shikshaka Chakravarti, which means “Emperor of Yoga Teachers, Teacher of Teachers”. In 2004 Iyengar was called one of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world and received the fourth, third, and second highest civilian award in the Republic of India. Most importantly, he is largely credited with popularizing yoga around the world and being one of yoga’s foremost teachers.

Iyengar will forever be remembered as a father of modern yoga. His teachings are useful to students of all styles and his unique approach to each student should be remembered by all teachers of yoga. He is a person that forever will be remembered for having a profound effect upon the world.

I would love for you to add any personal experiences or any impersonal experiences that you have gleaned from Iyengar’s life to this. I am very sad that I did not get to meet him or learn from him when I travelled to India. But his books will always be my favorite resources.

The 5 Major Problems with Hinduism (esp. the Caste System)

Biggest Hindu Temple: Akshardham (the Hindusim & the Caste system)

Modern Hinduism

As humans, we like to idealize about things that we don’t necessarily experience. The grass is always greener where you aren’t.

Recently, this has occurred quite often in the way that Westerners view eastern religions in the yoga community. I definitely experienced this before I saw the religions in action when I visited southeast Asia.

Hinduism is one of the oldest religions on the planet and is the primary religion in Southeast Asia and India. It is the world’s third largest religion, after Islam and Christianity with one billion followers.

Hinduism is far more of an aggregation of diverse traditions, rituals, and philosophies rather than an organized religion. Despite this traditional disparity, which has unified since ancient times, modern Hindu philosophers have helped to universalize the religion into several core concepts:

  • There is a divine nature in all beings
  • Dharma and right living
  • Social Justice
  • Peace
  • Shared sacred literature

Together, these concepts combine to make up the modern philosophical view of the Hindu religion, which is really more of a category of rituals and traditions than an organized religion. The diversity of the religion is astounding.

Hinduism has had a profound effect upon India and has helped to form the social and cultural norms that have spread throughout southeast Asia. In reconciling the religion’s philosophical ideals with the modern culture of India and other Asian countries we can start to see some major problems with the religion’s traditions in regards to the functioning of humanity within their society.

These problems begin to show up in the structure of a society, as well as cultural tendencies, individual habits, and norms that are commonly accepted by the population. The following are the six major problems with the philosophical tradition:

  1. The Caste System
  2. Ahimsa
  3. Samsara
  4. Moksha
  5. Marriage
  6. Responsibility

The Caste System

The caste system, or separation of classes is probably the largest problem within the Hindu philosophies. People are born into their caste and cannot change it. There are five social classes defined by the Vedic philosophies: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, Shudras, and Dalits. Varna, meaning class, and Jati, meaning caste, will help us to understand how the caste system is structured and implemented.

Brahmins are priests and teachers and are engaged in obtaining the “highest” spiritual knowledge. They are traditionally holy men with training from the age of 5, but can also be warriors, fishers, or other such professions. One usually continues the profession of their father and ancestors.

Kshatriyas are military elite and rulers. During wartime they protect and during peaceful times they rule. These were typically not chiefs, but the ruling elite.

Vaishyas were the class of farmers and cattle rearers until the more modern period where they transitioned to become money lenders, traders, and land-owners. There are lots of sub-castes in Vaishyas and there have been revolts by the class throughout history.

Shudras are the final caste in the system besides untouchables, or Dalits. Their duty and function is to serve the other castes, which has many potential problems for the members of the class. Some scholars believe that members of the caste were rejected by the other classes and therefore became the lowest class on the metaphorical totem pole.

Dalits are arguably not a caste, but rather untouchables and those rejected by society at large and make up about 20% of the population. India has passed several laws to protect this group of people because they are historically very discriminated against. They are also known as the casteless people.

One is born into a caste based on their family and are derived based on their occupation, though it wasn’t always the caste (get it?). The modern version of the caste system is a result of the colonial British Empire and served to provide administrative structure for the regime. It is essentially similar to slavery and modern India’s government has fought this discrimination with affirmative action, job reservations, and government jobs for the lower castes.

It’s pretty easy to see how the caste system promotes slavish living conditions and discrimination. It has influenced other religions and other countries, especially in the Indian subcontinent and is very visible in the social structures of most of the southeast asian countries. The promotion of the caste system is the biggest problem in Hinduism.

Ahimsa

Ahimsa is the concept of non-harm and means not to injure and applies to all living beings. Although the concept has many positive functions in human society, it promotes passivity for injustice and is probably one of the largest contributors to the reason that the caste system exists at all. Non-harm in nature is not possible, as the consumption of living matter is completely necessary for the sustenance of life. I am not saying that peacefulness isn’t possible, but life itself is somewhat of a violent process.

Certain individuals require meat for optimal nutrition. Animals shouldn’t feel guilty about living according to their nature, which humans have defined as immoral. So Ahimsa is a great ideal and peace is something we all should strive for, but it’s not necessarily possible in the reality we live in. Even your body is a battlefield for bacteria and micro-organisms. It is simply the way of things in the world.

The concept itself beckons respect for all of life. This is something that is very positive, as it denotes appreciation and promotes consideration of the divinity of all beings. Therefore, if you hurt a living being, you hurt yourself, according to the concept. However, in practice, you must injure other beings to feed yourself. Plants, trees, fish, and all of life is used for humanity to prosper so why are animals different?

Essentially, Ahimsa renders people very peaceful, which is positive, but it can also lead to passivity and acceptance of things that probably should not be acceptable. An example of this is the caste system. As we go down this list, you will start to see some patterns arising that play off of each other and contribute to a climate that is the Hindu religion in modern India. Gandhi was one of the primary promoters of Ahimsa.

Samsara

Samsara is the repeating cycle of birth, death, and rebirth believed by most eastern religions. The idea is that your current life is one of many past and future lives that all affect what you are experiencing now. Karma is what affects your destiny, but the Buddha taught that there was no beginning to the cycle, just an end that comes with Moksha, or liberation from the cycles of deaths and rebirths.

Obviously, this can breed complacency in life as well. There is no evidence to suggest that any of this is real (subjective data is not evidence) and it can lead, again, to acceptance of behaviors and circumstances that might otherwise be fought against. It also takes away from the present moment and can allow an individual to blame circumstances outside of reality for their current predicaments.

Moksha

Moksha is the concept of liberation from Samsara. This is the end goal of the Hindu ascetic’s karma and life. This is essentially an equivalent to heaven for the Hindu and denotes enlightenment, though it differs from the Buddhist ideals of enlightenment because in the Hindu religion, Moksha requires death. It represents self-knowledge, self-realization, and freedom, but also the completion of a fulfilled life of Dharma.

Again, this can create complacency, but on the flip side it can create acceptance for difficult circumstances and hope for the future. It also lends itself to an idealization of the end of life, rather than the present which can be negative. Moksha is a powerful idea, but again there is no evidence to suggest that reality does in fact work this way, so it can lead to delusional behavior.

Marriage

Hindu marriage is a traditional union where two individuals join together to pursue Dharma and Moksha and is recognized by law. Consummation is normally required for the marriage to be validated and most rituals lead to the consummation of the marriage. Marriage is normally arranged by the family, but is not necessarily an indicator of higher divorce rates, or unhappiness in the relationship. Modern India is changing this, as individuals are starting to appreciate choosing their spouse, rather than having their marriage arranged.

Marriages are arranged according to a variety of factors including: astrology, genealogical records, parental relationships, and wealth. Normally, parents arrange the marriage, but in modern urban India, this is changing rapidly.

There are eight types of Hindu marriage, but their differences are mostly ritualistic in nature. Divorce is supposedly extremely rare in Indian marriages.

The biggest problem with Hindu marriage is that there is almost no choice in the relationship. Though many individuals are happy, there are certainly those that aren’t and that are required by their culture and religion to maintain the relationship. If you take the view that marriage should always be eternal this might be a positive thing, but if you believe in free-will and individual happiness you might think this is negative. Hindus tend to be very accepting of their marital circumstances so normally they don’t disclose the circumstances of their relationship freely and tend to be oppressed because of gender roles in India.

Conclusion

There are always positive and negative aspects of philosophical concepts, depending upon how they are implemented. Many of these problems can also be very positive, such as increasing acceptance of circumstances and ability to cope with harsh realities. However, some also lead to very negative things, such as not caring about the environment, massive pollution, separation of people by genealogy, and extreme poverty for those who are not accepted by the culture’s standards. Discrimination is relatively normal in the Hindu religion and especially in southeast Asia and the Hindu religion definitely contributes to this.

Many aspects of Hinduism are positive, but these are the major negative issues with the religion. Philosophy is often paradoxical, so if anything is unclear please comment below. Additions are also always welcome!

Adjusting Ashtanga

Ashtanga_Advanced_Series

I am a huge fan of the Ashtanga practice. The intensity, the discipline, the mindlessness, and the routine of the sequential practice makes it like a second home for me. I always know that there are mornings where I can wake up and work without thinking, push myself without thinking of how, breathing without having to plan for a destination. But there are some problems with practicing the Ashtanga practice exclusively.

The Ashtanga series were a prescription for Krishnamacharya’s Indian students, namely his most famous student Pattabhi Jois. Krishnamacharya made them specifically for 15-year-old Indian men that were training for hours each day and that didn’t have previous injuries, or probably a lot of other sports and exercise experience.

This means that Krishnamacharya had a specific purpose in creating this sequences for young and fit Indian men and that the sequence is optimized for the Indian skeleton and definitely not for the other types of human skeletons. This becomes especially apparent when westerners begin trying lotus pose, Kukkutasana, and the Marichyasanas.

So there comes a point when one starts to realize that certain poses simply aren’t good for their body. This is half-bound lotus pose for me. The reason is that my knees are simply not strong enough to stretch my hips as deeply as the stretch requires, even though my hips are very open and I have good alignment. At a certain point, we have to realize that the body is mechanical; it has very real limitations that you will sooner or later be coming into increased contact with.

In my first two weeks, I was injured in the Ashtanga sequence. Marichyasana B, I can remember the stress of feeling injured like it was yesterday, my lateral collateral ligament snapped and I heard a very audible pop while I was in the full pose with the bind. I quickly got out of the pose and finished my sequence, then went home to look up some rehab exercises for my knee. It took a couple of days of exercises and taking it easy to let my knee heal. Not a fun few days while I was healing.

I continued my full practice for the rest of the time in India, making adjustments and skipping poses when it felt right. I did some extra work to make sure my knee was stable and working properly and avoided walking too much to make sure that the joint was getting less stress. Slowly full lotus opened up for me while I was rehabilitating my knee, though there is still quite a bit of space left to create in my hips. The injury forced me to be more conscious of what I was doing, to not accept things as they were explained, in black and white.

What is the point of that story? Every body is unique, so how can one series work for everyone’s skeleton? It can’t.

I think that there are parts of the Ashtanga sequence that are almost perfect in their ideal succession, mainly the standing series of the primary series. There is something especially cleansing about doing the poses in that order, and the inversions at the end are simply magical.

Sunday, I taught my first class back in the states. It was great, it was easy to forget how much I love teaching yoga until I was in the room again with all the wheels turning. It was a hybrid style so we warmed up slowly, with a bit of flow including some low lunges complete with back-bends, and even an extended child’s pose. Then we moved into standing postures and the full Sun Salutation B sequence, holding warrior 1 for less and less time and getting into the full back-bend in upward dog. Then we moved into the entirety of the Ashtanga practice. Instead of doing floor stretches, we did a bunch of ab work and then moved into some final yin-type stretches. I loved teaching the sequence and it felt right for the class; music was slow and complimentary more than anything else.

So if you come to my classes, except a little flair of Ashtanga. It’s evolving into something pretty cool and I think that someday soon I might help to develop a new series based on the Primary Series. It’s all an evolution 🙂

Returning to the West

Dhaka Streets_1

The past few days have been a difficult adjustment period. The accumulation of stress over the past few months was nothing short of monumental and I needed time to allow everything to process.

Budget traveling in Asia was fun, rewarding, and a life-changing experience. I would do it again, but I would have planned things much differently, spending more time in Myanmar rather than Vietnam and Thailand because of the touristic climates of the latter two countries. Vietnam is also particularly difficult as an American; there are massive amounts of propaganda about the war and people just aren’t excited to have you in their country. At least that was my interpretation of my experiences.

India was exactly what I needed; a combination of challenge and pure peace, allowing me to move far deeper into my yoga practice and mediation than I had anticipated. Nepal was a much-needed rest and I feel so lucky to have avoided the earthquakes and the devastation that they caused. Then Dhaka happened.

After I while, I realized that the east is so similar to the West; we are all essentially the same in our humanity and have differences and unique qualities that separate cultures, individuals, and groups of people. And in that uniqueness, comes a diversity that is relatively similar; there are always good people and bad people, people looking to take advantage of you and people looking to help you.

This is why perception is such an important part of the human experience; we base our decisions off of what we have experienced in the past.

Dhaka was so hard because of the way that their society is organized. People are willing to be completely wrong when trying to help you, as long as they can feel like they’ve helped you. They look up to white people and at the same time despite them. It seems that every sword has two sides.

Dhaka was probably the hardest day of my life, but it was also one that gives me the most hope. When people work together we can do anything we want. The way people worked together to help me was truly an incredible thing to witness.

I need to return to Myanmar because I was only able to visit Yangon, but the people were so nice. They went about their business until you came into contact with someone at a restaurant, or through whatever interaction and they were so kind. Far nicer than any country besides India, which I found to be somewhat similar. Thailand was close to Myanmar, but the people seem to be so sick of tourists. Though Bangkok is not really a city I am looking forward to visiting in the future, the north of Thailand was breath-taking and the locals were so nice. But I think they were as sick of the foreigner party scene as I was.

The came Vietnam, which I had always heard great things about. There is probably a lot racism against Americans because of the Vietnam war and the people seem to have taken on the victim mentality completely, like they are entitled to things because of it. And its hard to argue that they shouldn’t.

In the south of Vietnam I was scammed at every opportunity possible, there seemed to no stop to what people were willing to do for a bit of money. The only reprieve was from the people we were already staying with, who tended to be very kind and thoughtful and wonderful towards their clients. There were a lot of very nice people, but there was a lot of dislike directed at me for no reason by people in general. It was probably due to being American, which I think is obvious when I travel.

Coming back to the West through Berlin was great; the country is very in touch with its history and many of the exhibits of the wall in the city are completely eye-opening, full of facts and personalized stories, and bring the situation to life. It was nice to see both sides of the equation as well; how Hitler and the Nazi party came to power and why it was even a possibility in the country. A nice change from the one-sided propaganda in Vietnam.

Now I am in Prague, but spending the day recovering rather than traveling around. Two more days here should make for a lot of history and good food, site-seeing, and spending time with my family. I’m going to write an article on Berlin after this, so stay tuned for more experiences about the journey I am on.

 

Saraswati | Sarasvatī | सरस्वती

saraswathi

Saraswathi is a Hindu goddess, part of the trinity with Lakshmi and Parvati; she is a representation of knowledge, music, arts, wisdom, and learning. The three forms of the female goddess assist Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahman their partners while they sustain the universe . The goddess is revered by Jains and Buddhists as well as Hindus.

Saraswathi’s name is meaningful; Sara means essence, Sva means oneself so together they mean essence of oneself. It means to fill oneself with knowledge like with water and this goes further into her ancient mythological status as a divine river goddess, the best of river mother goddesses from the Rigveda.

Saraswathi is also meant to refer to a cleansing knowledge or knowledge that purifies the essence of a person, which can also refer to enactment of the arts such as music, dancing, language, and eloquence.

Saraswathi is usually depicted with four arms holding objects: a book (the vedas, a crystal mala or rosary (represents the power of meditation, inner reflection, and spirituality), a pot of water (the power of purification), and a musical instrument (typically a veena representing arts and sciences). Saraswathi is also associated with anuraga, the love for the rhythm of music which represents all feelings and emotions expressed through music. Saraswathi is associated with the swan which is often located at her feet and is said to discriminate between water and milk, drinking only milk as a sign of discernment. The swan is also a symbol of spiritual purity and perfection.

Saraswathi is also worshipped in the areas surrounding India and has influenced many of the following countries: Myanmar, Japan, Cambodia, Thailand, and Indonesia. She also has a festival in Bali that has a long history. She is also worshipped in various places in India.

Saraswathi is a popular god worshipped in modern times and especially in southern India can often be seen as revered deity in daily life.