Q: My mother and father are Hindu Brahmans, and they naturally expected me to marry a man of the Brahman community. However, I met a Catholic man in college four years ago and over time our relationship took off and developed.

We are color-blind toward one another and our different religious upbringings do not affect our relationship. We have been able to support each other through soulful conversations, learn from one another, and find true companionship with each other.

He is a good-natured, kind man, and his respect for Mother Earth has influenced me enormously. He has also instilled compassion in me and made me a better person. What more could I ask for?

But our parents are not at all happy about our proposed union. My parents, as Hindus and Brahmans, are totally upset and have threatened many times to disown me and never speak to me again. I love and respect my parents with all of my heart, and I want my parents to be a part of my future children's lives and to teach them about Hinduism. My parents' words have made me so sad, so heartbroken, and entirely confused.

Swami Tripurari answers: In the Skanda Purana, there is a well-known statement, kalau sudra sambhavah, meaning "In Kali-yuga everyone is born a sudra." If one is to be a brahman in our present age (Kali-yuga), this will not be determined by one's birth, but rather one's qualities and activities. Indeed, Sri Krsna speaks for all ages when he says catur-varnyam maya srstam guna-karma-vibhagasah: "I created the socioreligious system of varnasrama in consideration of one's qualities and actions." Thus, if we find brahminical qualities (forgiveness, honesty, knowledge, etc.) in someone, we should consider his or her socioreligious status in light of these qualities regardless of their birth.

Compatibility for marriage is a major socioreligious concern. It is largely for the likelihood of compatibility that a girl from a brahman family will be encouraged to marry a boy from a brahman family. However, if you have already found someone who is highly compatible, then this concern is met, and if his behavior and habits are good, and above all if he is spiritually inclined, I believe your parents should be compelled to embrace a more essential sense of brahminical life over one of mere formality by allowing your friend to enter their family.

The most important thing in life is spirituality. By your example encourage your parents to think spiritually, not biologically. This is the standard of the brahman.

If I am supposed to be a devotee, is it wrong of me to want a nice house and nice belongings? Am I not supposed to care about material possessions?

At this stage of your devotional practice you should not be troubled by the fact that you have such desires. Everyone needs a particular level of material comfort from which to cultivate spiritual life relative to one's psychological makeup. Secure a standard of living that suits you and engage in spiritual practice. As you advance, you will find that your material needs will diminish naturally. Don't be artificial with regard to renunciation.

During a temple lecture, a devotee referred to women who had abortions as baby killers. I had an abortion seven years ago and this is something stored very deeply in my memory. Afterward, I was convinced that I was a murderer and felt very deep sorrow for my action. I still have so much sorrow that sometimes I begin helplessly weeping when I remember my abortion. Moreover, in general, I feel guilty and disgusted about my past, because I did a lot of wild and crazy things. I feel guilty even though I was totally ignorant about proper conduct and did not know anything about spirituality and transcendence. Can I ever have a close relationship with Krsna after an abortion and all the disgusting things I did? What does scripture say on this issue?

There may be extenuating circumstances under which abortion is permissible and some of the scriptural narratives could be construed to give qualified support to certain abortions, but on the whole it is not morally correct to take the life of the child within the womb at any stage of his or her development. According to scripture, life in the womb begins at the time of conception, and sexual intercourse is something that should be regulated within the context of spiritual practice. If society were truly organized along spiritual lines, abortion would be of rare occurrence in consideration of extenuating circumstances at best.

In your case, whatever your past may have been, it has little bearing on your present life of spiritual culture, especially when any immoral acts performed were done so out of ignorance. In general no past is so dark that it can overshadow sincere spiritual practice, particularly that of chanting Krsna nama. We should not judge others by their past, but rather their present, and more so in terms of their future--their ideal. Make your ideal that of going back to Godhead.

In your articles you sometimes advise that one should follow one's heart. How is one to differentiate inspiration from the heart from self-deception stemming from selfish desire?

We have guru, sadhu, and sastra to help us in determining the parameters of what is and what is not within the siddhanta of Gaudiya Vaisnavism. However, all of the answers to spiritual life are not in the books, in the sense that within these parameters there are many individual choices to make. With all the sincerity at our disposal, we should follow our heart when making those decisions.

For example, everyone has to choose a guru. The scripture, guru, or sadhu does not tell us which guru to choose. They provide us with guidelines, but the choice is ours. Don't expect others to make every decision in spiritual life for you in the name of avoiding following the whims of your mind. You will have to use your mind and intelligence to make many important decisions, and in doing so, your mental decision as to how to proceed should be made from within the parameters of the scriptural conclusions of the tradition and in consonance with your heart.

Self-deception and selfish desire are deeply rooted in all of us, but we also know something of what it means to be sincere. Pray to be sincere about being sincere and it will be obvious to you what self-deception and selfishness are relative to your immediate need to advance at any particular time.

Why, in addition to genuine and purely spiritual teachings, universal in their source, do you use and promulgate, before an audience of Westerners, Sanskrit words, practices and technical terms derived from Indian culture that are of no special spiritual significance to Westerners? If you are, as you write, Western-born, why not use your birth name? In my experience, adopting the language, dress, and practices of a foreign body of spirituality all too often becomes simply a nest for a hidden egoism.

Sanga is not only for a Western audience. We have many readers from India who subscribe to Sanga as well. Furthermore, the Western world, especially the United States, is as much a melting pot of cultures today if not more so than it was in the past. Indeed, we are living in times that represent the end of a predominantly white America, and Southeast Asian culture is playing a considerable role in this new world mix, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area where I reside. Here Indian restaurants, cultural presentations, and spiritual programs are in abundance.

In terms of spirituality, the West is considerably influenced by the discipline of yoga, and a fair amount of Sanskrit spiritual terminology associated with yoga has found its way into the Webster's Dictionary. These terms are there because there are no English equivalents for them, yet they are in use in places as American as TV and radio talk shows. Terms like karma and nirvana are not without "special spiritual significance" save and except for "exotic provenance." They have precise meaning that is now part of many Americans' spiritual worldview, their dharma.

It may be true that these terms and other cultural accouterments are sometimes used inappropriately resulting in a form of "spiritual materialism." However, I do not believe that this is the case with our presentation of Sanga. Again, our audience is mixed, and furthermore we are presenting universal spiritual principles through the framework of a particular spiritual tradition of Indian origin in consideration of modernity.

Although I was born in the West, my guru, who I consider my spiritual father, was from India. He gave me the name Swami Tripurari in the context of spiritual initiation, and I think it is appropriate for me to use it as I serve in the capacity of a spiritual teacher under his guidance. From a cultural point of view, I feel myself to be a combination of both Indian and American culture. Although born in the West, I have lived a good part of my life in India.

I am not advocating that spirituality requires one to change cultures, but rather that a spirituality that is truly universal can be inclusive of elements from all cultures that serve to promote the essence of spirituality.

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