Sister Sufi Goes to India

At the time of this posting, I am in India and I will be here for another week or so. It is my third trip to the Subcontinent. My first was in the 1960s when poverty was overwhelming. Last year I made my second trip and was struck by the improvements, but the bustle, color, and variety had not changed. I love India.

The next set of blog posts will describe my religious adventures in India. My goal is to speak with people of many different perspectives and to bring them and their ideas to life for you.

To prepare you, here is a very brief primer on Hinduism.

In a previous blog post I mentioned two dimensions of Hinduism that I admire:
Flexibility and pluralism that welcome a spectrum of gods and philosophies.
The three paths to Nirvana or Absolute Reality: devotion, selfless service, and meditation.

In the early times of Hinduism (~1200 bce) the first scriptures, the Vedas, began to be written. At that time the major Gods included Indra (storms and rain), Agni (sacrificial fire and messenger to other gods), Soma (the sacred drink) and Varuna (water and the celestial ocean). Gods were addressed through sacrificial ritual similar to other cultures of that time. The individual’s afterlife was not an issue, continuity was through clan and tribe.
Over the next two thousand years or so, several cultures merged and an amazing pluralism developed in India. This development included many different gods and goddesses as well as a complex variety of philosophies, including atheism.

Today the major deities are
1) Vishnu, the preserver, with his avatars Krishna and Rama;
2) Shiva, the destroyer, especially of ego; and the inter-related array of
3) Shakti goddesses, including Shiva’s wife Parvati (love and devotion) and Kali (fierce destroyer of evil).

Regardless of which god or goddess you choose, it is widely accepted that devotion to the gods (bhakti yoga), selfless service (karma yoga), and meditation (prana yoga) can lead to liberation (Moksha) or to a better rebirth and eventual Moksha. It is agreed that these three yogas, seriously practiced, wear away the false self (or ego) and open the possibility of Moksha.
Moksha is the deep realization that the individual self (Atman) and ultimate reality (Brahmin) are one.

Traditionally, one is born a Hindu. Over 90% of the world’s 1.1 billion Hindus are in India. However there are three other religions which were born in India: Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. In the thousand years before the common era, Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism exchanged ideas and practices. Jainism, the most austere and the smallest, influenced Gandhi’s ideas of nonviolence. Buddhism thrived and then declined for a variety of reasons, almost finished off by the Muslim Mugal conquests of the 1500s and 1600s ce. The Sikhs arose during the times of Hindu Muslim conflict. Christian missionaries came as early as the first 100 years ce. European missionaries followed the Portuguese traders of the 1500s and subsequent European colonials.
Today the total Indian population is some 1.3 billion people. Here are some approximate breakdowns:

1 billion Hindus (80%)
19 million Muslims (14%)
3 million Christians (2.3%)
2.5 million Sikhs (1.9%)
1 million Buddhists (.8%)
500,000 Jains (.4%)

Watch this space for one Indian adventure in ideas after another.

4 Replies to “Sister Sufi Goes to India”

  1. I’m worried that the talk of eradicating the ego/self, i.e. “when ‘you’ have left, He will come within” is often used as a setup for brainwashing (or, as I see it with some religious devotees, substituting the ego of the group for the personal ego). It seems more people are brainwashed into being suicide bombers or giving all of their money to a religion rather than becoming “enlightened” based on these notions. When people identify as members of a religion, whether Mormon or Muslim, as one of their top priorities/identities, they often spend so much of their life and energy on that religious group. Often it is socially fulfilling, but rarely leads to strong spiritual experiences. Even having an experience of altered consciousness from prayer or meditation doesn’t apparently leave a permanent moral/intellectual improvement, but is often used by religious leaders as ‘evidence’ that their system works and that the person should increase their devotion to that system/religion. Sadly, by teaching that it could take ‘several lifetimes’ to reach enlightenment, etc., some people are tricked into spending much of their time and energy sitting still, doing repetitive chanting/prayers, volunteering for the church, etc. They don’t expect to have a strong spiritual experience in this lifetime. How convenient for the religion: They can keep a person mentally enslaved to their group and have only promised benefits after death! Can you differentiate spiritual experiences from runner’s high, sensory isolation, sexual afterglow, and general passion and focus? Is there something special about the existing Holy Books, or could one reach the same state of mind memorizing the Periodic Table of the Elements and mentally repeating it?

    I continue to wonder if people who are devoted to a set of religious practices would still be devoted if they didn’t have the vague promise of attaining something great after death. There has been such a wealth of supernatural BS claimed for meditation practices (like Transcendental Meditation’s false claim that crime was lowered in areas where there were more TM meditators). I have had some powerful experiences during meditations but currently don’t believe there is something special after death for humans (or for humans of a certain religious group). To me, coming to these beliefs was liberating; I am not searching/wanting for something supernatural, or afraid that I will miss the Holy Boat. I understand that some people in religious groups have strong experiences of love and bliss, especially after prolonged mediation/prayer practices. But there are many, even full-time priests and monks, who never have a spiritual experience, despite following all of the rules. I expect there are even more who learn to talk/preach as if they have had supernatural mystical experiences (and can teach others the methods to do the same), but haven’t really had them. I suspect that is one of the big roots of clergy sexual abuse: a devoted person in the priesthood eventually discovers it is mostly bull and they aren’t being watched by a God, so their Id comes out to play when Daddy is away. I hope you can write more about these issues. I find your blog to be an interesting start to have some real discussions.

    1. Kevin, thanks for your comment. In the realm of spirituality, the idea of eradicating the ego/self is not an ordinary state of consciousness. It is not the same as a “poor ego” or other conditions that might make one susceptible to brain washing.

      One of the great challenges on the path to higher states is that spiritual experiences can strengthen negative qualities. This is the idea that the water of life causes both weeds and the rose to grow. Under the direction of a true teacher, this is useful because, writ large, these qualities may not otherwise be seen or taken seriously.

      Spirituality is a tricky business. You are not home free just because you have significant spiritual experiences. You may have thought that your ego is eradicated when you have only increased it. As a student, I have been severely deflated after some pomposity or another and I expect it will happen again. If a person is not alert or is immune to useful correction, the result is hardly beautiful. On the other hand, the student bears responsibility for being open to criticism but not to blind acceptance. If the teacher or student acts in violation of universal understandings of morality that are found in religion and humanism, there is something amiss.

      Brain washing is another matter. Under torture or a prolonged barrage of a particular set of ideas, who will resist? If you are reduced to zero in these circumstances, you are indeed open to reprogramming by a foreign structure of ideas. If you are in a community of constant reinforcement of these ideas, your only hope is for some burst of light from your own basic humanity or that of another.

      Not having experienced torture nor sustained abuse, I would propose that the only protection would be strong internal sense of good or God and an acceptance of death. Perhaps the resulting clarity might enable you to make a plan.

      There may or may not be something after death for us humans, hard to say since we have such hope and imagination. However, as a motivation for spiritual practice, it is all the same to me. Based on my modest spiritual experience, I am usually comfortable with death as the end but would be delighted if there is something more. My preparation is the same.

      As for sexual abuse in the clergy, I think it is a product of human nature. Sex is a big drive and you never know when it might hit you. Some time I want to write a blog on sex and the Islamic saying “Allah loves a good laugh.” From the sacred to the profane to the ridiculous. I believe great spiritual teachers do not differ from the rest of us except they have a policy of self-observation and self-control. Even Rumi said that sometimes he is at the highest levels and sometimes in the furnace of his own nature.

  2. Frankly having practiced Sufism (if one can even so this) for 40 years I tend to agree with first commentary. Also you cant really practice sufism it’s mainly about
    Being authentic, empathic with multi-sensory perception. All it ever gave me was detachment from world illusions and my own mental delusions. What’s not to complain about. It’s peaceful, mostly serene and full of curiosity.

  3. Frankly having practiced Sufism (if one can even do this) for 40 years I tend to agree with first commentary. Also you cant really practice sufism it’s mainly about
    Being authentic, empathic with multi-sensory perception. All it ever gave me was detachment from world illusions and my own mental delusions. What’s not to complain about. It’s peaceful, mostly serene and full of curiosity.

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