ramblings of an immigrant son

Archive for the ‘Hinduism’ Category

What the Cherry Blossom Still has to Teach Us

In Art, Asia, Buddhism, Ecology, Epistemology, Ethics, Health, Hinduism, History, Japan, Lifestyle, Literature, Nature, Opinions, Philosophy, Religion, Sakura, Society, Spirituality, Taiwan, Tradition, Travel, Worldviews on March 2, 2013 at 9:42 pm

From past to present, flowers continuously find purpose in our lives and imaginations.  Besides serving to brighten gardens, flowers fill the air with rich and subtle fragrances. They are used as tokens of affection for those among the living and dead. They remain a constant source of artistic inspiration, as seen in the Indo-Islamic artwork of medieval India and the Impressionists paintings of modernizing Europe. They are used to identify political allegiances and are often employed as powerful symbols of human achievement as well as human folly. From being an essential ingredient of herbal teas to a customary offerings to Hindu Deities, flowers remained a mainstay in the lives of numerous people from around the world. Why do these shapely but fragile angiosperms appeal to us so much?

For Babur, the first Mughal Emperor, the flowers of his royal gardens provided a comforting reminder of Farghana, his beloved but forever unreachable homeland. For poets like William Shakespeare and John McCrae, flowers have been the topic of imaginative imagery and the substance of metaphoric language. While Shakespeare often used flowers to represent human emotions in his plays and sonnets, McCrae described poppies growing on Flanders fields as being torches held by dead soldiers in his powerful poem, In Flanders Field. For Buddhists and Hindus mystics alike, the lotus personifies the successful realization of spiritual enlightenment, with the roots of the flower entangled in muddy water but the blossom rising above the surface in all its captivating glory.

Obvious, people from all walks of life enjoy flowers for a variety of reasons. Although I appreciate many of these reasons, I nonetheless find that the Japan-based Buddhist perception of the cherry blossom, or Sakura, to be among the most relevant and instructive. That might seem like a fairly bold claim, but I cannot think of any flower that can better teach a human being how to think and live in our fast-paced-post-modern world. Up until the last two years, I did not pay much attention to cherry blossoms. It was during a spring visit to Yangmingshan, an active volcano near Taipei, that I first encounter these breath-taking tree flowers. Watching their pink, white, and violet pedals constantly fluttering to the ground, it struck me how sadly and beautifully these marvelous cherry blossoms seemed to come and go. Being surrounded by these falling pedals, I could not help feeling that they had more to offer than aesthetic value. However, by the end of spring, the illusive and mysterious Sakura became lost from sight and mind.

It was during my second encounter with cherry blossoms in Vancouver that my interest became rekindled. Watching how the cherry blossoms rapidly budded at the beginning of spring and gradually vanished by the end of spring, I came to better appreciate the transient but cyclical nature of the Sakura season. While visiting Vanduesen Botanical Gardens, I had the opportunity to see cherry blossom trees in full bloom side by side with pine trees, an interesting eco-cultural experience of West meeting East,  fleeting pink mingling with forever green, flower pedal next to pine cone. It was like simultaneously walking in two worlds with one foot in the Asian Pacific Rim and another in the Canadian North. Now I admit, this observation certainly says a lot about myself; after all, walking in two worlds is not exactly new stuff for a second generation Indo-Canadian. Perhaps I could even be accused of choosing to see something of myself in the Vanduesen blossom trees. Nonetheless, I prefer to think, like the cultural ecologist David Abram, that human beings tend to discover a lot about themselves in what is not human.

While my interest in cherry blossoms has since soared to new heights, it was not until I recently read a thoughtful passage in Neil Ferguson’s Hitching Rides with Buddha that I could finally fully articulate my reason for finding such frail and short-lived flowers so fascinating and inspirational. During his hitchhiking adventures across Japan in pursuit of the Sakura, Ferguson, in one of his reflective moments, observed that:

The imagery of sakura is problematic. It has long been entwine with the notions of birth and death, beauty and violence. Cherry blossoms are central to the Japanese worship of nature… and yet the sword guards of samurai warriors bore the imprints of sakura as a a last, wry reminder of the fleetingness of life… The starkest image of sakura is that of the Ishiwari-Zakura, the stone-splitting Cherry Tree… [that] took root and grew in a small crack in a very large boulder… [eventually] splitting the vast boulder in two like life out of stone-grey death. The power of beauty to shatter stone; as brutal and sublime as any sword.

Although I already learned much about the Japanese notion of Sakura before reading Ferguson’s passage, his personal observation of  its paradoxical meanings did much to broaden and deepen my own awareness of the dynamic nature of these flower trees in a Shinto-Buddhist cosmology. While initially viewing the Sakura season as nature’s way of subtly teaching by gentle example about the “fleetingness of life,” my understanding of the cherry blossom tree gained new dimension as I recognized how it simultaneously teaches us how powerful, stubborn, and destructive the will to live can be. The Sakura season always comes to an end but always with the promise that it will begin anew next year. Problematic imagery indeed.

In a day and age where universal truths are becoming harder to maintain, and what we think we know becomes more easily debatable, perhaps the cherry blossom has something to teach us. In constantly reminding us that things that are seemingly contradictory can co-exist, it visibly demonstrates a way of thinking that is organic, pragmatic, and grounded in a world we all live in. In celebrating the cycle of birth and death on a yearly basis, it also models a natural way of being that balances an optimism for a colourful life with an acceptance of an unavoidable death. These are just a few of the revelations to be found in the beauty and sadness of Sakura.



An introduction to Hinduism in less than 1,200 Words

In Culture, Hinduism, History, Philosophy, Religion, Vedantism on August 5, 2011 at 4:03 pm

About one year ago, my aunt asked if I would help her with a presentation on Hinduism that she had been requested to make at a community center. In agreeing to do so, I wrote up a concise series of questions-and-answers that I hoped would provide, at the very least, a general picture of what it means to be a “Hindu” in today’s world. It was also my hope that it would gently but firmly dispel some of the misconceptions about Hindu beliefs and practices that all too often creep into the way many of us, especially in North America, understand this admittedly confusing and complicated topic.

After creating this very general text, I decided to make it widely available. There are a lot of introductions to Hinduism online and in publication. However, more than a few can be misleading and convoluted. I sincerely hope interested readers will find my piece informative and useful. Thank you for taking the time to read this. Please feel free provide me with questions, comments, and feedback!

I. What is “Hinduism?”

The term “Hinduism” is often used to describe one of the many belief systems, traditions, and philosophies that almost all took shape in South Asia. Unlike other religious groups that originated on the Indian subcontinent (e.g., Sikhism and Jainism), sects and communities considered Hindu today base their beliefs and customs on the scriptural authority of the Vedas, teachings and hymns that were compiled into large bodies of texts sometime during the first millennium B.C.E. However, it should be acknowledged that these Vedic-based groups are to some extent influenced by the beliefs and practices of other religious groups (e.g., Theravada Buddhists and Sufi Muslims). They also differ very much from each other and in some cases, even promote opposing doctrines (e.g., Shaivism and Vaishnavism).

II. What role do stories play in Hinduism?

Stories play an important role in the various Hindu traditions of today. The Vedas and their commentaries, known as Upanishads, are written very abstractly and are very difficult to understand. Unsurprisingly, it is quite difficult for most believers to associate most of the content of these revered texts to their own existence. Stories then, from ancient times until present, have not only served to provide timeless moral guidance that everyday people can relate to, but have made the central principles and teachings of the Vedas understandable for general audiences. The impact of these tales on their audience cannot be underestimated. After all, when one reads or hears the many stories, it is difficult not to appreciate how the dilemmas and challenges that the central characters within them confront reflect the sort of problems that we, as individuals and members of a family, society, and country encounter in day-to-day situations. The tales can be found in literary works known as the Puranas as well as in Sanskrit epics, the most well known of the latter being the  Ramayana and Mahabharata.

III. Is Hinduism a polytheistic religion?

Admittedly, it is all too tempting to think of Hindu belief systems as being polytheistic. The vast Hindu pantheon, the presence of various deities in Hindu mythology, as well as the existence of sects and temples devoted to specific gods and goddesses certainly encourage this idea. Indeed, most Hindu traditions are not without a polytheistic element. However, they all recognize that creation is linked to a supreme reality, entity, and/or phenomenon within existence, known as Brahman. The gods and goddesses are usually understood as manifestations of Brahman that become directly involved in worldly affairs. Their activities can range from responding to prayers for a good harvest to assuming human form in order to help restore the balance of righteousness and virtue in the world. It is never clearly defined in most Hindu traditions whether Brahman is a monotheistic, monist, pantheistic, or panentheistic God.  Although the ambiguity of Brahman has spurred the creation of various schools of thought in Hindu philosophy, it is generally not considered a very important question among devotees. It is widely accepted that Brahman is truth, and that this truth is one, even if sages called it by different names.

IV. Are there rituals & festivals in Hinduism?

There are numerous rituals in Hindu traditions that are unique to specific cultural and regional groups within India. However, there are a number of rituals that the majority of believers partake in. Devotees, either among their family members or community, participate in prayer services, known as Pooja. Pooja is either conducted in a family home or in a temple known as a Mandir. During Pooja, believers will chant prayers, read passages from sacred texts, and sing prayer songs. The prayer service usually concludes with a ritual called Aarti and the offering of blessed food, known as prasadam. Other significant rituals are usually performed at important junctures of an individual’s life such as birth, marriage, and death.

There are also various festivals that are celebrated by Hindu believers. Diwali, Holi, and Raksha Bandhan are among the most widely recognized. Diwali, the festival of lights, celebrates Lord Rama’s return from exile after defeating the tyrannical king of Sri Lanka, Ravana. Lord Rama’s victory over Ravana and return to his ancient kingdom of Ayodhya represents for many devotees the triumph of good over evil. The event is celebrated with great enthusiasm, with the exchange of gifts and good wishes, over-consumption of delicious foods and sweets, evening prayers, companionship of friends and family, the lighting of many candles, and sight of many fireworks in the night sky. Holi, the festival of colours, celebrates young Lord Krishna’s fun-filled play with the cow-herd girls that he grew up with, especially his childhood friend and later lover, Radha. The festival marks the beginning of spring and a time of romance. Devotees celebrate this festival with much singing, dancing, and throwing of colours at one another. Raksha Bandhan celebrates the relationship between female and male members of the family. The sacred bond between brother and sister is a major theme in Hindu mythology. This festival is highlighted by a female member of the family tying a holy thread known as a rakhi on her male relative’s arm. In turn, the male relative gives a gift to his female relative and promises to protect her. They then feed each other sweets.

V. Did Mahatma Gandhi base his ideology on Hinduism?

When leading the civil disobedience movement against British rule on the Indian subcontinent, M. K. Gandhi not only made himself the leader of a nationalist movement, but strove to be a living and breathing example of principles based on Hindu teachings and traditions. His aim was to simultaneously facilitate the worldly and spiritual regeneration of the Indian people. Gandhi practiced an ethic of non-violence known as ahimsa. Ahimsa, a Hindu as well as Jain concept, requires its believers to remain committed to a pacifist lifestyle, to abhor any form of violence, and to not consume animal flesh of any kind. Gandhi also sought to promote simplicity, frugality, and asceticism by conducting his life according to the principles of a Brahmacharaya. A Brahmacharaya follows a mystic tradition based on a prominent Hindu philosophy called Vedantism. He or she is required to not only devote their life to realizing Brahman, but in doing so, to renounce worldly pleasures and material desires. Lastly, Gandhi’s willingness to endanger his personal welfare in order to end British imperialism and to oppose bloodshed was inspired by the verses of a sacred Hindu text called the Bhagavad-Gita. The Gita, the Song of the Lord, is among the most influential of Hindu scripture. It endorses karma-yoga, the path towards oneness with Brahman through a life of virtue and righteous action.

Further Reading:

There are excellent books on this topic that I’d strongly recommend to anyone who has a genuine interest in learning more about Hinduism:

(1) Jeaneane D. Fowler, “Hinduism Belief, Practices & Scripture”

(2) Rabindernath Tagore, “Sadhana: The Realisation of Life”

(3) Works of C. Rajagopalachari

(4) The latest editions of “Sources of Indian Tradition,” Vol. 1 & 2