Sunday, May 24, 2009

Faith and Flavor: The Taste of the Gita

Aditi Sriram graduated from Columbia University in 2007 and has been working in New York City as a consultant since then.

Her spiritual heritage and contemporary search for truth and wisdom has led her to a time-tested source, the Bhagavad-Gita.

Here, she shares some of her dynamic and sincere insights and personal inspirations.

Before I turned 18, I lived in 4 countries and attended 6 schools. Transition, adjustment, flexibility – these were concepts I understood and embraced. It was after I settled into a dorm room at Columbia University as a freshman that time stopped moving so quickly, and my attitude started to shift from adaptation to identification and independence. I was no longer living with my parents, so obedience and duty had to come from within. Suddenly I was relying on my conscience instead of my parents to discipline me, and navigating a moral code for the sake of principle and not deference. College juxtaposed endless opportunity – hundreds of academic majors, internships and lectures – with inescapable mundanities – assignments, alarm snooze buttons, laundry – and it was up to me to prioritize all my activities in the way that best expressed my identity.

Inevitably I signed up for a class on Middle Eastern and Indian Civilizations, eager to see my culture in a glossy textbook. Conversations erupted about religion, caste, education and the controversies embedded in these constructs. I’d contribute with personal experience, having lived in India, but 21st century Bombay does not explain sati (self-sacrifice) very effectively. I remembered what my father would always say to my siblings and I when we had questions about specific Hindu teachings – why isn’t there an equivalent Brahmachari Puja (celibate monk life) for women? What are the differences between Shaivites (worshipers of Shiva) and Vaishnavites (worshipers of Vishnu)? – and were not satisfied with his answer: Go to the source, go to the texts. All the answers are there! Don’t make judgments before you have fully sought out an answer.

Study which texts? Pray to which Gods? Visit which temples? Where did one start? Hinduism is overwhelming in the plurality of ways it can be approached and analyzed in order to understand, embrace, and live by it. Yet Hinduism appeals to people the way Krishna appeals to the Gopis (Krishna's milkmaid servants): by calling out to the curious individual, singling him out and welcoming him. The umbrella of Hinduism is as all-encompassing as Mt. Govardhan (a Vaishnava holy site); everyone can find their patch of shelter underneath it and, once ready, Krishna guides them out with a customized path to help them advance through the religion, always with love and encouragement.

My foray was an on-campus discussion group that involved copious amounts of free, Indian, vegetarian food and two very friendly Hare Krishna monks in saffron robes, armed with many copies of the Bhagavad Gita. The crowd was casual, the conversation comfortable and the food consummate! Perhaps my priorities were misaligned at the time – my focus being more on the food than on the text – but a fulfilled stomach abets a fulfilled mind, and I was moved to speak up, when my mouth was finally empty.

At first, I felt like I knew more than my counterparts since I knew the premise of the Gita, the principal characters and the subsidiary myths, but with each verse that we explored, I became less concerned with the pace of the pack, and more disarmed by the language of the Gita. Love everyone the same way – your mother the way you would a neighbor, and a stranger the way you would your mother? Dust off the layer of lust that coats your heart and turns love into attachment? The Gita chastised human temperaments, without temper, and revolutionized our discussion group’s thoughts, without starting any fights: we were all Arjunas and Sanjayas, blessed with Krishna and his words just inches away from our ears (next to our plates of pasta and halava!). I was amazed at the potency of the words.

I had encounters with realized souls that demonstrated karma to me just the way Krishna, Narada and others created circumstances for their devotees to interact in and learn from – twice with Radhanath Swami and once with a complete stranger on a New York City bus who, after telling me that my guru would find me, told me that he could see “right through” me, that he knew who I was. I realized that for every thought I devoted to cultivating a consciousness and formulating an awareness, I was being rewarded. A summer internship in India exposed me, once again, to the harsh juxtapositions of luxury and poverty, religious adherence and intolerance, and the frailty of life in a country of 1 billion. I

I questioned Hinduism still further, and received patiently responses from the same monks at Columbia, who helped me put life, mortality and meaningfulness in the perspective of karma and dharma (duty). We glorify the Lord to practice compassion and humility, and Krishna glorifies us for our efforts, creating distractions from the maya (illusion) that surrounds us and allowing us a glimpse of pure interaction.

It was easy to compartmentalize my Gita study into a weekly activity and keep busy with academics, other extra-curricular activities, and the wealth of distraction that New York City had to offer.! But after graduating and starting a full-time job, my thoughts seemed to toggle between tasks at work, and subsequent fatigue at home. Having spent the day staring at a computer screen, I was too tired to read at night. My copy of the Gita sat on a shelf, collecting its own proverbial layer of dust, hiding from me its potential to lessen the stress from my daily routine. This could not last forever, of course; circumstances found me at the Hare Krishna temple, hungry for halava and an honest discussion. I

I found the energy to pick up the Gita again, determined to read it from Chapter 1 to Chapter 12. Comparing the examples of service and compassion in the Gita to my varied interactions at work have shown me how power and control wrongly dominate the workplace – and how easy it is to get caught up in it. Every visit to the Hare Krishna ashram is personal and intimate, while the office can feel like a maze of cubicles. I have re-prioritized once again, to define my attitude towards work with the determination and humility I draw upon when discussing the Gita. I am hearing its language – or noticing its lack thereof – in newspaper headlines about greedy leaders, in lust-filled enterprises, and rejoicing in the examples the Lord puts forth to his devotees when we most need it. I have tasted the endlessness of the Gita, and I have returned to it!

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