Om Sweet Om

Om Sweet Om

Halloween-Hare-Krishnas

posted by Vineet Chander

Halloween has come and gone, without incident. Heidi Klum played it safe this year dressing as a crow, none of the neighborhood kids donned Lil’ Ganesh costumes after all, and my daughter Shruti’s first Halloween costume (an adorable pumpkin) was a hit. 

But fresh on the heels of my Halloween hypothetical about the bona fides of dressing up as a Hindu deity, a real-life example of the ultra-fine line between good-natured fun and tasteless pot-shot. I give you…

HareKrishna_costume.jpg
… the Hare Krishna Halloween costume.

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Trick or Treat? Not quite sure.

posted by Vineet Chander

Growing up, I always experienced Halloween as a clashing of cultures. More than any other American holiday, Halloween seemed to draw a line in the sand between the world that my Hindu immigrant parents resided in and the American suburban world around me. Since Halloween usually tends to coincide with a number of Hindu holidays (Hindus use a lunar calendar, so exact dates switch around), when Diwali happened to fall on October 31, the two holidays went head-to-head.  Either I could go trick-or-treating and watch the Nightmare on Elm Street marathon (my desire), or visit temple and exchange sweets with relatives (my parents’ orders), but I couldn’t really do both.

Even when there wasn’t a direct conflict, though, there was always a disconnect.

“What kind of depressing holiday is this supposed to be, anyway?” my Mom would ask, disapproval in her voice as she suspiciously surveyed the plastic skeletons and cardboard tombstones now decorating our neighbors’ lawns. “A waste of time,” my father would mutter even as he begrudgingly bought bags of cheap candy to hand out to trick-or-treaters.

(Some of their more orthodox Hindu friends had even stronger objections to the holiday. “All this meditating on death and gore, and openly celebrating ghosts and goblins! It’s ashubh, inauspicious.”)

My parents tried, of course, but somehow they were never able to quite get it. Sure, they proudly displayed the jack-o-lanterns that my sister and I carved at school; but we’d never carve one together as a family. They dutifully doled out the candy to the neighborhood kids, though without the gusto of the other parents, who’d often dress up themselves and distribute treats in character. And of course, they were content to let us go out trick-or-treating, though I can’t really remember them getting too excited about it.

And then there was the issue of costumes.

Most years — as long as it wasn’t too expensive — we could just convince them to buy whatever superhero or horror movie monster costume was popular that year.

But there were those years that our parents (and other Desi parents, I’ve since learned) stumbled across what they thought was brilliance– to have us dress up as an “Indian prince” or “Indian princess”. This feat in creative laziness they accomplished by dolling us up in our finest Indian party clothes, perhaps with the addition of a makeshift turban or tiara, and sending us out to impress our candy-giving neighbors with our exotic apparel.

The neighbors loved it, our parents felt the euphoric mix of cultural pride and saving money, and we (the Association of Involuntary Indian Princes and Princesses) thought that it was incredibly lame.

(Full Disclosure: Years later, when we were old enough to see trick-or-treating only as a means to free candy, but still young enough to get away with it, we Indian-American kids co-opted this tactic by willingly donning our kurta pyjama or salwar kameez outfits to feed our candy fix without going through the trouble of actually buying a costume.)

As much as we resented it, though, now that I look back at it, I can appreciate a certain mingling of cultures that it engendered. And now that I am a parent myself, I wonder about how to minimize the culture clash for my own Indian-American daughter, and how to integrate the worlds of Halloween and Hinduism for her.


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Hindu Humor?

posted by Vineet Chander

Recently, a reader included this concern in his or her following comment to one of my earlier posts:

Lastly, I do want to mention that I am not sure that the title of the
blog refers to the sacred mantra Om in a respectful manner.
When I lived in a (Bhakti Yoga) ashram, we were specifically instructed
not to use holy names in this kind of joking context. Namaste

I can certainly sympathize. I too have been taught (and believe) that a mantra (sacred sound) like Om should be afforded all respect. And, as I noted in my post about President Obama’s uttering the name of Lord Rama, I come from a tradition that teaches that ultimately the holy names of the Divine are identical with the Supreme Himself. Such sound vibrations should definitely not be mocked or used in a disrespectful manner.

At the same time, I recognize that religious humor can be a, well, funny thing. It is, like beauty, in the eye and the ear (and the belly laugh) of the beholder. One man’s “hilarious” is another’s “offensive.”

pitka_mike_myers.jpgI’ve written about this tension on Beliefnet before; when some Hindus were complaining that the Mike Meyer’s movie The Love Guru was anti-Hindu, I argued that the film was not unfairly targeting Hinduism and that it may even have something to teach our faith community about how to educate others with taking ourselves too seriously. (To clarify: I wrote that article before the film actually was released and subsequently bombed at the box office. I did see the movie, and found it to be one of the most crude, asinine, poorly made films I’d seen. However I maintain that, repugnant as the film was to my good taste as a moviegoer, it wasn’t anti-Hindu per se.)

I have a good friend — a fellow Vaishnava-Hindu — who is my comedy hero. This friend — lets just call him Yadunath Das Joe — happens to be a professional comedian. (By the way, being friends with a professional comedian is not nearly as hard as it sounds; despite what you might expect he doesn’t tell knock-knock jokes incessantly or keep slipping on banana peels or anything like that.)

A few months ago, Joe and his wife — lets call her Beth Beth — co-wrote and performed a skit at our temple’s Krishna Janmashtami celebrations. The piece (a dialogue between a daughter and her mother, where Joe-in-drag played the mother) was hilarious– silly enough that the audience was roaring with laughter, but not so silly that it compromised the sanctity of the occasion. Afterwards, I was discussing the skit with a mutual friend, and we both began to appreciate Joe’s ability to walk that line and do everything with class and good taste. “Of course,” the mutual friend said with confidence, “he’s a man of substance.”

That idea struck me then, and continues to strike me now: that good humor (as opposed to Good Humor) is necessarily intertwined with the character, integrity, and substance of the joke-teller.
   

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Like Pearls on a Thread

posted by Vineet Chander

pearls_whitebackground.jpg

Bhagavad-gita chapter 7, sloka
7

mattah parataram nanyat
kincid asti dhananjaya
mayi sarvam idam protam
sutre mani-gana iva

O Arjuna, great conqueror of wealth, there is no
truth superior to Me. Everything rests upon Me, as pearls are
strung on a thread.

gita_modern.jpg

This verse is one of my all-time favorites. I love the imagery
and the aesthetics of it. And I am amazed that in a few short
words, Lord Krishna is able to convey a message that is at once
bold and direct, and yet also layered with subtleties and nuance. I
love the way that the Gita reconciles ideas that – at first blush -
seem to be paradoxical.

Krishna’s claim that there is no truth superior to him, may rub
us the wrong way. It may sound exclusivist, dogmatic, unreasonably
demanding. Many of us have been happily reading through a sacred
wisdom text like the Gita or the Bible, only to come across a God
who hits us with this sort of cosmic “my way or the highway (to
hell?)” …and have checked out of religion entirely as a result of
it. And while Hinduism is often celebrated as promoting pluralism
(and it does), it also has its fair share of religious “truth
claims.”

The brilliance of this verse, to me, is that Krishna doesn’t
stop there. He gives Arjuna (and us) a vivid analogy to appreciate
his claim in a deeper way. To say that God is the thread upon which
we, the individual pearls, are strung, carries with it some profound
implications.

First, it tells us that the Divine doesn’t express his supremacy
through cruel, tyrannical demands for submission. He is
ever-present, providing the foundation upon which we can rest.
There is a comfort there–we are not lonely pieces floating
aimlessly adrift some ocean of meaninglessness. We are supported
and loved, an intrinsic part of the greater whole.

Second, it reminds us that there is a connection between all of
us. As disparate as we might seem, as much as we experience the
world and our journeys as individuals, the Divine is there as the
unifying, common factor. We are people with stories, bound together
in the struggle and pain and joys of love–bound by the Divine
source of us all. And just as the necklace is considered well-made
when the thread tightly binds each pearl to the other, when each
stone is close to the other, our perfection is found in how we can
fill those gaps between us.

Third, it tells us that we are precious. Krishna is intentional
(and maybe a bit humorous) in calling Arjuna by the epithet
Dhananjaya, the “conqueror of wealth.” Could it be that in a
world that puts a premium on wealth – money, cars, and yes, jewels
- the real treasure waiting to be discovered is us, the self within
and the people around us?

Finally, here Lord Krishna displays an attribute of the Divine
that we don’t often see: a sense of humility. We are the shining
pearls, the jewels seen and appreciated by others; he is the
thread, simple and unseen, performing the thankless task of holding
everything together. A beautiful necklace is one in which the
pearls get the praise; nobody compliments the thread. There is
something awesome about a God who is content to remain invisible,
who is glorified by allowing his creation to receive the glory. And
it gives us a hint of how we might aspire to be. It reminds us how
sacred and powerful of a force humility truly is.

Throughout the Gita, Lord Krishna does
this–he plays with our expectations of what God should be, what we
are called to be, what the relationship between the two is. He
turns things on their heads and inspires us to see the world in a
different way. 

Please feel free to share your thoughts. Let me know what you think in the comments section below.

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