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I’ve gotten my feet more reverently on the ground, but alas, not the rice flour. My kolam was a disaster. Rice flour in the air, in clumps, all over my hands… everywhere but in one flowing line on the tile of our front porch. My effort at a ritual mark at our threshold was inscrutable, but I haven’t given up yet. I have decorative colored sand and I’m not afraid to use it!
Remembering to offer a moment of gratitude before I put my feet on the floor when I wake up has been going better. Making my first conscious thought each day be one simple thought of appreciation makes my days flow better, and the benefit is far out of proportion to the effort expended. Still, new habits are as hard to make as old ones are to break, so I had to create a prosaic way of reminding myself. I set my alarm for 6:11 (or 7:11 or even later on the weekends) instead of a more usual time and when I see those two 1’s, I think “straight legs” and straighten my legs out, then swing them out over the side of the bed and just before standing up I quietly offer, “Thank you, Earth, for all of the support you have given me and continue to give!”
As my girls and I were wrapping up our exploration of Hinduism, I passed on one last question to Anu. Larkin and Kyrie had really enjoyed religious historian Huston Smith’s summary of the four primary paths to God that Hinduism espouses for the four basic personality types that Hinduism recognizes. “Some people are primarily reflective,” Smith wrote in his famous The World’s Religions. “Others are basically emotional. Still others are essentially active. Finally, some are experimentally inclined. For each of these personality types Hinduism prescribes a distinct yoga.” Jnana yoga is “the path to oneness with the Godhead through knowledge[,] an intuitive discernment.” Bhakti yoga, the path of emotional connection, aims “to direct toward God the love that lies at the base of every heart.” The third path is Karma Yoga, “the path to God through work.” The fourth path is Raja Yoga, “Designed for people who are of scientific bent, it is the way to God through psychophysical experiments[,]” like meditation and practicing physical yoga asanas or postures.
“My girls wonder if you consider your practice of dance to be more a form of bhakti yoga or of karma yoga?” I related.
“Oh, I think that is a great question!! Out of the two, I would consider it bhakti yoga because it is a devotional practice. Dance, being a physical, mental, and spiritual discipline, incorporates several aspects into one! Karma yoga is more service—like volunteering where you help others in need or do some work that needs to get done to help someone out. The word that is often used to describe any such pursuit is sadhana, or a spiritual practice in order to attain a higher plane of consciousness.”
I then asked about this new word, sadhana. “Sadhana is a general term that just means any kind of spiritual pursuit whether it be meditation (dhyana yoga), devotion (bhakti yoga), service (karma yoga), or whatever. In India when people find some kind of passionate pursuit that fulfills their spiritual quest, they explain it in these terms. “This is my sadhana—helping the young girls in the slum or attending kirtan every Thursday or meditating every morning or….” In my case, my sadhana is my personal practice of dance and public performance of it as well. I know that what I do in my personal practice feeds and strengthens my spiritual being and the performance of it is what I know I am here to do—share this depth and lift others through this art form.”
A passionate pursuit that fulfills a spiritual quest. What a beautiful way to describe that sense of “knowing why we are here” that so many souls seek and hope for! I hope this process of studying religions this year encourages my daughters to take a few new steps and to get a little more curious about the particular and unfolding contours of their own paths. I hope they begin to see that each and every step, no matter how small or simple and no matter along what path, is critical to paths blossoming into pursuits and ultimately into passions. Yes, just like the old journey of a thousand miles that begins with a single step. And, begins and begins and begins, again and again. Just like my first two steps each morning of the past week. Fourteen steps closer to a sense of reverence for the Divinity in each day, and in each and every step. Like I said, way out of proportion to the effort expended. Practice makes perfect sense.
“Every Hindu home has an altar.” Anu wanted to conclude with the importance of rituals in Hindu practice. Both place rituals and time rituals, and how the two are often intertwined. Home altars in Hinduism are as various as the families who tend to them, but the tending is paramount. Even if brief and uncomplicated, offering gratitude in this one place every day is a form of puja, or reverent devotion. Dedication to puja isn’t so much because the gods need it but because we humans need it. Centering oneself with and within a conscious sense of the Divine through ritual makes people feel connected to more than just the prosaic each day. And this feels good, and right. This makes the everyday things we do and touch and experience feel more meaningful. She referenced again her ritual of touching the altar in her dance studio. She also described the most simple and beautiful way that her grandparents touch the world each day. When they wake up, they give thanks to Mother Earth for her support and blessings in the coming day at the moment their feet touch the ground!
Anu then summarized the religious historian Mircea Eliade’s distinction between Sacred and Profane Time and Space. In Sacred Time and Space, life is cyclical. It returns and repeats and regenerates in so doing. Having a cycle of rituals and a dedication to the repetition of these rituals marks our time as special, connected to the Sacred. “For those who live in “profane” time, time is linear. There is nothing to mark it, nothing to come back to, no touchstones. So, nothing feels special. It’s very sad really. People feel lost in this way.”
A week later, as we sat in a darkened theater awaiting Anu’s dance recital, I noticed that in front of Anu’s altar, something called a kolam had been poured out in an intricate filigree pattern. She danced magically, as ornately and precisely as that moment of art on the floor. I later asked her about the kolam. “It is made of rice flour and is more than a decoration. It is made at altars as well as the threshold of the home everyday, traditionally. It brings prosperity–the energy of Goddess Lakshmi–into the home by providing food for ants and attracting birds and creatures that represent prosperity and abundance of life. The design is made free hand and in a continuous stream without lifting the hand and stopping the flow.”
Something that beautiful, made simply to be both generous and auspicious. So generous that you even want to include ants! And, the requirements to not lift the hand nor stop the flow, to just keep doing it. Flowing, cyclically. Yet another practice and another metaphor for making time sacred. I hope to surprise my girls with an effort at a kolam as we conclude our consideration of Hinduism. And, I hope that this year encourages us to find more ways to dedicate time to the Sacred in our lives. Please wish me luck… on both counts!
Yum Yum. Technically, the definition of the Hindu word rasa is “liquid,” but our friend Anu was encouraging us to think of this word – which in Hinduism describes the ultimate, and ultimately spiritual, pleasure in any aesthetic experience – more as “juice” or “nectar,” the most delicious experience we can savor.
“You know, when you ride a roller coaster or watch a good scary movie, and even if you feel shocked or frightened or any intense feeling, but as it ends you say, ‘Wow, that was great!’? Or when you feel so happy after a really funny movie, or really touched by a dance or a painting? That savoring of your own feelings, that intense and still balanced connection with all of our feelings, is rasa. That is when your heart is in a higher place. And that is the purpose of art!” Anu also indicated that this richness of connection is what the artist feels as well. She said that in the Hindu tradition, the pursuit of the artist is a doubly blessed one, because artists not only elevate themselves but also elevate their audience. In this way, art is equated with a spiritual pursuit and a spiritual practice, a ritual.
She told us about one of her rituals. She maintains an altar in her dance studio. She explained her need to touch it, again and again, each time she enters. In this way, she marks that time and that place as special. And sacred. She also told us of a moment, eight years ago, when onstage she had a sort of out-of-body experience, that after so many years of practice and discipline her awareness danced right out of her and turned and saw herself. At that moment she knew, just had complete faith that her purpose on this earth was to dance, that she was doing exactly what she was meant to do. I exclaimed, “That must have been such a peaceful moment!” She lit up and chirped, “Completely!”
Last Sunday, she was completely peaceful and graceful, powerful and beautiful, kinetic and grounded, inspired and inspiring as she danced a recital at the Long Center. A glowing altar, overflowing with flowers and candles, graced one corner of the stage. She had told my daughters of the belief that an energy flows from performer to audience and back, like a circuit. It lights everyone up. Larkin, the actor of our family, had lit up at this description. “That’s just what I feel when I act! That’s why I love to do it so much!”
And, that is why both of my girls loved watching an exotic and elegant dance on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in a dark theater. We were glowing along with her. We were witnessing how beautifully the spirit can inspire the body and how very yummy it is to be inspired as well. Kyrie said, “I love how she incarnates her dancing into her spirituality.” Cheers to that! With big cups of rasa overflowing.
“I had no idea there were so many religions!” Kyrie said this with sincere excitement more than with any confusion. Just a basic, Wow. Larkin agreed. Simply listing the world’s religions in preparation for this year was already opening our eyes and minds. But, as this past weekend approached, and it was time for us to begin our exploration of Hinduism, my knees started knocking a little bit. What have I gotten us into again? How am I going to do this well? Help!
Help arrived, unsolicited and not unmagically, via a book on Hinduism mailed to me last week from a kind reader of this blog. These words caught my eye. “In the spiritual world, say Vaishnava poets, ‘every word is a song, every step a dance.'” Such a beautiful description of spiritual mindfulness, and such a pretty photo of a dancer across from it. A dancer! I recalled my good fortune several years ago in working with an incredible Austinite named Anuradha Naimpally – a preeminent Indian dancer, a fellow activist for the arts in our community, and as lovely a soul as you could ever hope to meet. Larkin loves to dance. Just LOVES it. Kyrie also has found a blossoming confidence in dancing this past year. I asked, “Would you be willing to visit with my girls about your faith?”
Anu could not have been more gracious. She wrote, “I love to talk about what is at the root of my passion!!!” We met with her this past Sunday, and it will definitely take more than one post to do justice to all of her wise words. She began by explaining that there is never a divide between the physical and the spiritual in Hinduism, that Hindus celebrate the body and life. They see our physical lives as a gift and an opportunity to be appreciated and honored, not transcended or denied. They see “daily” life not as a distraction from the spiritual but, when lived with spiritual intention, as a direct path to and with the spiritual.
She also explained that while Hinduism obviously has lots of gods, these are generally not understood to be literal and separate deities but reflective of the illimitable aspects of Brahman, the “Absolute” energy of the universe, so that Hinduism is basically monotheistic. Her description of Hindu temples sublimely summarized all of this. She described a temple as a mini-cosmos. On the outside, the many carvings and voluminous images are all about the “transactions of daily life,” everything from family to work to sex, you name it. Entering the temple, the images become more “inward,” more about our interior lives and more about our ultimate aspiration to God, whose image, in whatever form, is at the center of the temple. The further you go inside, the darker it gets. You begin to physically squint, trying to see, and this is a metaphor for how it is hard to see God. She said that at the end of a ceremony, the priest waves a light around and around the image of the god, symbolizing that with spiritual effort you “see” God more fully. But! By that point in a ceremony, most of the worshippers’ eyes are closed, each aspirant deeply into their own prayer or meditation, and this is also symbolic because this is how you really see God… not with any eyes, but with the heart inside.
My girls sat, rapt, their sandwiches uneaten and their hands dancing in the air as they asked questions and made connections. I sat, relieved and full of gratitude. I sit here now, with four more pages of notes and two new books to consider, thanks to Anu. Namaste!