When I was a kid I hated to try new things. I was a creature of habit. My parents had to make me try new things. “You’ll love soccer, if you tried it out.”
No thanks. I’ll stick to being anti-social and building forts in the woods.
But Mom and Dad had a mission: to expose me to everything they could so that I might develop into a well-rounded young man. Well, I don’t know if I turned cultivated but I did end up liking soccer.
So what’s my point? Project Conversion is an effort to take the lessons my parents taught me about trying new things and looking through the perspectives of others and apply that to the religious violence and bickering that has our world up in flames today. But instead of preaching about it, I decided to show the world how it’s done by putting my money where my mouth is and living it.
One man. Eleven faiths. One year to practice them all. That’s the mission. To live life in the shoes of another. And it started January 1st, 2011 with Hinduism. As promised, here is my review of the month I’ve lived.
What I’ve Learned/What Misconceptions Were Overcome?
“Truth is one, though the wise call it by many names” –the Rig Veda
When I began planning for Project Conversion, my future Jain Mentor told me that “Hinduism is the United States of philosophy.” I didn’t get it at the time but now I understand. Hinduism, like the US of A, is an amalgam of philosophies and theologies joined by a common religious “genetic” ancestor or goal. That’s what is meant by the above quote from the Rig Veda and arguably the whole meaning of Sanatana Dharma.
As I prepared for my month with Hinduism I felt overwhelmed. “So many gods,” I thought. “So many rituals, traditions, and history. Where do I begin?!” Because I grew up as Christian and was accustomed to only one form of God (Jesus) and one scripture (the Bible), the notion that within one religion I had a choice between different deities and holy scriptures was mind-blowing. Truth, it turned out, wasn’t relative, but a singular goal reached by many, many roads. But time was running out and I had to pick a road fast. I selected Shiva as my deity and thus narrowed down how my month would play out.
Shiva is the third aspect of the Supreme Reality (God), Brahman. As Shiva, we understand the creative and destructive cycles of nature. Shiva also represents the detached ascetic, persistent in meditation on the pervasive reality (the divine Self within and outside of us all), and covered in the ashes of burned sin (ignorance). He is represented by the lingam.
The lingam represents the formless, abstract reality of the divine. In Sanatana Dharma, there is freedom to use representations of the divine (murti) in order to meditate and focus on God, however the aspirant is encourage to develop his devotion to the point where such tools and methods are obsolete, as he reaches moksha, the realized state in which all is Brahman–including ourselves.
There are literally thousands of representations of the divine, each for one or more of its aspects. This is why figures like Jesus, the Buddha, and Krishna are all acceptable as projections of the divine within Hinduism. Each are a way to Truth. When I began this month, I clearly thought that Hinduism was a polytheistic faith due to these various representations. Now I know that, depending on which school of thought a Hindu belongs to, they are either monotheists (God exists as a part of and/or outside of creation and selects manifestations) or monist (the divine is manifest in all of creation).
Freedom of devotion also lends to the highly developed artistic acumen of Hindus in general. Their culture is replete with visual, literary, and musical styles that convey every colorful aspect of the divine. One revelation I experienced with this concept is that while Hinduism has its holy texts (i.e., the Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, etc.), spiritual discourse is an ongoing development and the treatises that cover these lessons are held in the same esteem as the rishis (holy men or seers) of time immemorial.
What Would I Do Differently?
For the sake of efficiency, I decided to split each month into four categories: Rituals and practices, arts and culture, social issues, monthly reflection. While this gives a nice introduction into these different aspects of faith, they tend to limit the content I can share about what’s happening with me personally. Let’s face it, if you wanted a scholarly info dump, you could Google the subject and get it anywhere. What makes Project Conversion interesting is that I’m displacing myself for a whole year and living a “day in the life.” Sure, I posted some personal content toward the end and I’ve also kept a hand-written journal of my daily experiences. Going forward, however, I think it would be fair and more beneficial to you if I offered you a more in depth view into my time living as a Hindu, Muslim, Baha’i, etc. So that’s that.
What Am I Taking From This Into The Future?
One of the most amazing results of Project Conversion was how quickly I was able to adapt. If you would have told me two months ago that I would embrace a vegetarian lifestyle I would have asked you what you were smoking and if I could have some. But now…Understand that Hinduism sees the presence of the divine in all life and all creation. This is why the concept of non-injury is so crucial. Sure, it was tough whenever someone at a restaurant ordered a perfectly seasoned and seared New York strip, the scent of which flooded my nose and thrust me into potential blood-lust. But I resisted. I held fast. And now that I know in vivid detail how meat is transformed from terrified animal to slaughtered flesh on a plate…yeah, I’m a vegetarian now and probably for the long haul. But I won’t judge someone who eats meat. To each their own, right?
Meditation/Yoga. I’m a naturally stressed out guy. As a college student, a father, a husband, a writer, editor, and now in the midst of Project Conversion, it’s easy to see that my head could spin off at any moment. Meditation/yoga–a practice that transcends religious tradition–has become a powerful ally. I am calmer, far more patient, my passion is controlled/guided, and I see the positive in a situation far more readily than in the past. In fact, the results have been so dramatic that I haven’t used profanity(even in thought!) this whole month and even my libido is tamed. Yes, I have a lot further to go, but I like my new disposition and I credit the trained focus of meditation/yoga for that result.
Adopting Hinduism for the month has been like jumping naked into freezing water. However, now that I’ve lived this way for almost a month, I can honestly say I’m going to miss everything. I don’t want to hang up my rudraksha mala. I want to chant the mantras in the limited Sanskrit I worked so hard to learn. I don’t want to stop visiting the temple and taking part in the classes, aarti, and prasad. I’ll miss the cool sensation of bhasma ash drying on my forehead in the tripundra stripes. The wisdom of the Upanishads has seeped into my heart and mind and though I must now move on, those poetic verses uttered so many millenia ago will echo long beyond my first month of Project Conversion. No, I haven’t presented everything there is to know about Sanatan Dharma here, but then again, that was never the goal. My hope is that you learned enough to want to learn more, to no longer get nervous around a co-worker wearing a bindi or tilak, to ask questions and let one speak for themselves before you judge them.
So here’s to everyone who helped me along the way: Hindu Bhavan Temple, Prof. Bharat Gajjar, Meeta Gajjar Parker, The Naik family, Dr. Gupta and her Sunday School students, Dr. Baktri, everyone who emailed me about the faith and the saints old and new who spoke to me through their written words…