“Hindu Paths to the Divine”

“Hindu Paths to the Divine”

April 28, 2019

Hinduism and I go way back. Well, not on a cosmic scale. But in terms of my own life scale.  Hinduism and I go back to 1985, 34 years ago. During the summer of 1985, the summer before my senior year of high school, I was lucky enough to participate in a program called “the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for International Studies” in Philadelphia. In the summer of 1985, the focus of the Governor’s School was India. This meant learning about the geography and economy and political systems of India; beginning to learn the Hindi language; and learning about the religious traditions of India, particularly Hinduism. Exploring Hinduism and learning Hindi were my very favorite parts of the summer. It was strictly at the intellectual or academic level; I was not spiritually engaged.

But then, after I came home from my studies, something interesting happened. Perhaps it was synchronicity. That fall, my father was reading our local paper, and he noticed that free Hindi classes were being offered in the Hindu temple near my hometown. The Hindi classes were on Sunday mornings, so it was basically the “Sunday school” focus for the children and teens of the Hindu temple.

And so, as it turned out, during my senior year of high school I spent many Sundays at the local Hindu temple. I was there for a Hindi lesson, but I also took in some of the worship. I loved everything about it – it was so different from my experiences in RE at the Unitarian Universalist congregation where I grew up. I loved the chants, the incense, the bright colors, the transcendent feeling that came upon me in that style of worship. It wasn’t something you had to think about; it was something you experienced. You saw it; heard it; smelled it; felt it. As a teenager, it seemed like that’s what was missing, often, in Unitarian Universalism. Now that I’m 50 and a UU minister… it still feels like what’s missing, often, in Unitarian Universalism.

There’s a stark beauty and an elegance in modern Unitarian Universalist worship, and there’s certainly integrity in the use of reason. But… but… Don’t you sometimes want your worship to be more vivid? Bright colors! Mystical sounds! Enchanting smells! I have missed those things from my senior year of high school, and my year of worshiping and learning with the Hindus.

Life has a funny way of cycling things back to us. In 2003, a tragedy helped me to rediscover Hinduism. As many of you know, my stepson Adam died suddenly and unexpectedly in late 2003, from aortic stenosis. He was just 19 years old. In the aftermath of this tragedy, in my grief, I found myself wanting to go deeper spiritually. I was still a lay person at the time. Somewhere in the back of my head, I remembered my experience in the Hindu temple from high school, and I did a little research. I discovered that there was a Hindu temple relatively near where I lived. I decided to go and see what it was like. I went quite randomly on a weekday morning.

Like the temple I remembered from 34 years ago, it was in a structure that obviously used to be a house. But inside… inside, it took my breath away. I was struck with vivid sights and sounds and smells, just as I remembered. I didn’t see anyone in the temple, though the door was unlocked. I knew someone was there, though, because I heard quiet singing in what sounded like Sanskrit, and I smelled incense. I sat on the floor, in front of the statues and portraits of the avatars of God.  I closed my eyes, and I meditated and prayed. Something about the visuals – something about the “over-the-topness”, for lack of a better term, helped me meditate better than I’d ever been able to meditate before. Something about the vivid images and colors helped to pull me out of myself. Or was it pulling me into myself? I felt connected to all things. When I opened my eyes, I saw a small, older Indian man, who was the temple priest. When I opened my eyes, he was sitting there meditating too; apparently he had quietly joined me. He probably wondered what on earth I was doing there, but he took it all in stride. Eventually he opened his eyes, and smiled and nodded at me. He began to sing quietly in Sanskrit. Then, after a time, he gave me a handful of nuts and dried fruit (a kind of communion offering in Hinduism known as prasad), and he said, “God bless you” with his heavy Indian accent. Then he went back to his room in the temple.

I visited this temple many times the year after Adam died. Always, the priest ministered to me through meditation, singing in Sanskrit, the prasad and the blessing. I discovered that he spoke little English; he spoke Hindi. And as I speak very, very little Hindi, in spite of my studies, we never had an in-depth conversation. He was a humble, quiet man, nothing flashy about him. But I consider him to be one of the most important religious figures of my lifetime.

So, my first appreciation of Hinduism is something I’m trying to share, the best I can, this morning: and that’s the vividness of the tradition. The vivid sensory experience so different from anything I’m accustomed to in my own lifetime – other than, perhaps, going out into nature’s beauty itself. It helps me feel the warmth and wonderful diversity of creation. It helps me feel mysteriously connected to it all.

My second appreciation of Hinduism? It is leela. Leela is the Hindu concept that the Divine power within the universe is playful. According to the ideas of leela, the universe is all about inter-play. Why be so serious? God plays, and why shouldn’t you? Leela includes an appreciation for Krishna as a playful jokester and prankster, and an appreciation of Shiva as a dancer – dancing even as he destroys. You can be pious and playful simultaneously. God wants you to laugh and play. There is no need to decide between saving the world and savoring the world (as E.B. White put it). Because of leela, you can save the world and savor it, all at once.

Another appreciation of Hinduism for this morning is one I’ve hinted at with the title of this sermon. Namely, Hinduism offers many paths to God[1] or to what is Divine. There are many paths to moksha, or release from the endless cycle of reincarnation. There is not one path. There is no attempt to force one path. There is no claim of the one path or the one truth. Within Hinduism, you have multiple paths to knowing the Divine. The three most popular paths to knowing God are yogas, or paths to union or communion with the divine. They are karma yoga (the path of action, through doing one’s duty/dharma and good works); jnana yoga (the path of knowledge, through study and meditation); and bhakti yoga (the path of devotion, through singing and praising the divine). The most popular is bhakti yoga, which we are experiencing today with kirtan.

But beyond these three yogas, there are many, many more. And further, Hinduism acknowledges paths to union with God that are beyond the bounds of traditional Hinduism. For instance, Christianity (and other traditions) are usually regarded as valid ways of coming to know God. Loving and worshipping God in its incarnation as Jesus? That’s a kind of bhakti yoga, for instance, and it’s accepted as a worthy path.

Hindus are generally uninterested in converting others to Hinduism. It’s not because they aren’t enthusiastic about Hinduism; it’s because they feel the path you were born with can work just fine, if you make the effort. The priests at the two Hindu temples that I’ve been associated with have never been remotely interested in converting me. Why? Because there’s nothing wrong with Unitarian Universalism! I just need to continue to work with it as my path to God.

The final appreciation of Hinduism that I will share today is the theology of Vedanta. Today I’ll give a brief introduction to Vedanta, which is the wisdom tradition of Hinduism. Vedanta is Hindu philosophy or theology that comes from the Vedas, the most ancient scriptures in Hinduism, and the most ancient written scriptures known in the world. About seven years ago, I took an intensive Vedanta course taught by Prof. Meenu Singh. Her course was titled “Who Am I?”[2] My description of Vedanta today is very much based on what I learned from her. And the question of who we are, who we really are, is at the heart of Vedanta. What is our essence?

In Vedanta, to use the Sanskrit terms, there is a concept known as drig drisha vivek. “Drig” means seer, “drisha” means the seen, and “vivek” means discernment. So drig drisha vivek is the discernment of what is the seer, and what is the seen. According to this thinking, if you can see something, it is not you.

Prof. Singh asked us to think of the question “Who am I?” What do you think of? One thing you might think of is your body. When someone says, “Turn around”, we immediately interpret it as turning our body around. But Vedanta says, if you can see it, it’s not you. If I can see that chair (or that pew), it’s not me. Well, I can see my body, or at least its constituent parts. So it isn’t me. I am not my body.

What about your mind? Are you your mind, your thoughts, your ideas, your intellect? Vedanta says that the mind is a flow of thoughts. But you can know your thoughts; you can observe your thoughts as they come. So you can see your mind, that flow of thoughts, and therefore (drig drisha vivek) you are not your mind. We could go on and on with drig drisha vivek, realizing what we are not.

Thinking of to drig drisha vivek, discernment between the seer and the seen, who is the true seer? There is something in me that knows; there is a watcher within me. There’s a watcher within me that watches me – the internal watcher that watches myself. As Prof. Singh put it, there’s something inside me, beyond thoughts. It’s a seer that sees my thoughts – what is that? When I experience joy, or bliss, who knows that I am joyful, blissful? It’s not about feeling bliss or having thoughts of being blissful; it is being bliss. Who or what is being bliss?

Everyone has experienced joy or bliss at some point. I’m talking about that split second feeling of joy or bliss; it’s very real but very fleeting. When you fulfill a goal or a desire – say you train hard and win the race, you study hard and get an A+, you find out that the person you desire desires you too… In those moments, usually just for a few seconds, or a sometimes a split second, you feel joy, bliss. And what is that feeling, really? In that moment, it’s the only thing in your mind – the only thing in your mind (for a split second) is the great feeling of winning, or getting what you wanted. Just for a second, that feeling is all there is in the world for you. As Prof. Singh points out, just for a second, you have that euphoric feeling of “no mind”. Your mind is totally quiet. Your mind is still. That is joy. For a moment, the joy of the Self shines through. In that split second of bliss, you are in touch with the light within you – the Ultimate, the Divine within you. In Hindu terms, this is Brahman within you.

Prof. Singh also comes at this from another angle. Think about what happens when you sleep. Sleep has three main phases. There is a “snooze” phase before you are completely asleep. Then you dream. Most dreams are about daily life, things active in our waking states (day residue); about fears, desires, dream about things of your waking life, but they may or may not appear in their waking life form. The third phase of sleep is deep sleep, the delta phase. In deep sleep, you do not dream.

So, when you are dreaming, who or what is dreaming? Dreams are really your mind at work, your thoughts; but, it’s your inner world that you’re seeing. When you dream, you see your mind’s world. As Prof. Singh explains, from the point of view of Vedanta, dreams are as real as waking life. Dreams are projections of our own inner worlds. In dreams, there is still an ego. It’s just your ego in a different realm. It’s interesting to note that dreams can be just as stressful and miserable, while they’re happening, as things that happen in our waking lives. Our minds are very busy. That is not bliss.

Deep sleep is an entirely different matter. Different people have different dreams, but as Prof. Singh pointed out, deep sleep is the same for everyone. It is the same for dogs and pigs and all animals! Now with dreams, you can remember your dreams if you tell yourself to remember them before you go to bed; sometimes you can remember dreams without even trying. But no one remembers deep sleep. Do you remember deep sleep? What was it like? Where were you? You don’t know! But when you arise from deep sleep, don’t you feel refreshed? Don’t you feel happier, calmer? Deep sleep is blissful because there is no differentiation between things; it’s an experience of no experience. In deep sleep, the thoughts pause. There is that no-mind. Yes, says Prof. Singh, it is like the no-mind of blissful waking moments.

That no-mind feeling is blissful; it is restorative (in the case of deep sleep). And it reminds you of your internal watcher; when you close your eyes, beyond your thoughts, there’s some other “I am” there.

You and I have to wait for moments of no-mind and bliss, but rishis (saints) do not. For rishis (enlightened saints), as Prof. Singh noted, there is no gap between what they desire and what they have. They are always joy. (“Ananda” means joy in Sanskrit; this is why rishis get names like Yogananda and Vivekananda.) Joy is always there for those who know how to still their mind. Rishis can still their minds at will through meditation and experience the light within. The seer (drig) and seen (drisha) merge. There is no need for discernment. They are one and the same. And so unlike the rest of us, rishis do perceive the Divine within regularly. That Divinity within, or Brahman within, is known as atman.

Vedanta tells us that the core of each human is pure bliss, but most of us don’t see it because we focus on our bodies, our thoughts, and our attachments. Where there is no mind, you are bliss, you are atman. Vedanta also tells us that ultimately, atman is one and the same as Brahman, or the Divine Nature that pervades all. So you are Divinity; all is Divinity. To get back to Prof. Singh’s question: Who are you? The answer is: You are THAT.

That is essentially what I personally believe, as a panentheist. That is, I believe that there is a Oneness, a Divine or Holy Oneness, if you will, and it is within all, and within each of us, and it is something ineffable as well. It is not so different from the inner or esoteric Christianity of the Gospel of Thomas, which we talked about last Sunday on Easter. The Divine is within you. You are That. May we know the joy of no-mind, and the joy of utter connectedness; may we perceive and feel the bliss of Oneness with all others, and all that is. May it be so. Blessed be, and amen.

[1] I have seen the term “paths to God” used in a few contexts to describe Hinduism; it is the title of a Ram Dass book for one instance.

[2] Course at Sarva Dev Mandir in Oxford, MA, October 11, 2012 start, taught by Prof. Meenu Singh. Ended January 12, 2013.

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