Revisiting Gauri Vrat And A Renewed Appreciation For Rituals

Today, I’ve been reflecting on a phase of my life growing up in India. When I was much younger growing up in Gujarat, my sister and I used to observe the annual Gauri Vrat. The Gauri Vrat this year starts today July 4 till July 9, 2017. This particular vrat (fasting with intention) is predominantly observed in Gujarat by unmarried girls and is dedicated to Goddess Parvati (the female Divine – Shakti). The vrat lasts five days and is intentionally observed for one to be blessed with an ideal husband and to bring prosperity in the family.

It was really fun to observe the fast – the highlight of it being the early morning trips to the Shiva-Parvati mandir before school, puja rituals where we grew small crops [multiple mixed grain seeds such as wheat, barley] in a small mud basket that looked something like this:

DSC03336  [Photo Credit]

The end to the fast was indicated by all girl friends getting together and pulling an all-nighter, sharing stories, dreams and visions for our future. The vrat was to be observed annually for 5 years or 7 years which we were able to complete successfully. My sister and I just started talking about our memories of fasting earlier this evening and hysterically laughing at some of the antics. Back then, boys in our school had a blast teasing girls about wanting an ideal husband but more about all the food we could not eat. Definitely some good memories.

Well, the fact that I am unmarried and as single as can be, I am left to wonder about such rituals. But then, the fact is to do rituals with unwavering faith – Śraddhā. When we did the vrat rituals at the temple, we are constantly asked to have faith. And that is what keeps everything in perspective.

Some years ago I had moved away from rituals as I studied Advaita Vedanta and thought it was unnecessary to participate in rituals because all that is, is Brahman. But then the more I studied Vedanta, the more rituals began to make sense and most of all their importance in developing and maintaining a focus on Brahman. I now have a renewed appreciation for religious rituals.

As the month of Shravan is around the corner, I am hoping to be more intentional in my fasts and ritualistic worship of Shivji. In words of Shri Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi, everything will always be through Isvara Krupa [Divine Grace].

Until next time,

Namaste

“Know that the eradication of the identification with the body is charity, spiritual austerity and ritual sacrifice; it is virtue, divine union and devotion; it is heaven, wealth, peace and truth; it is grace; it is the state of divine silence; it is the deathless death; it is jnana, renunciation, final liberation and bliss.” – Shri Ramana Maharshi

You Are Here…Now

I love the universe – and everything in it. I truly just do. Those who know me are very well aware of my love for the starry night sky. 2017 has already been filled with a lunar eclipse, a solar eclipse, a comet sighting and the discovery of seven exoplanets only 40 light years away! Also, Indian Space Research Organization launched 104 satellites in one go. One hundred and four satellites!!

you_are_here

Perspective  (photo credit)

Though visibility was questionable in my geographical area, the possibility of being able to see a comet was too tempting to ignore. I did try to look for comet 45P but was unable to do see it. I am not disappointed because it reminded me again of my deep love for astronomy and astrophysics. It was timely too.

Being reminded that I am part of something much bigger and more intelligent than humans continues to be comforting. Time and again, star-gazing puts life in perspective for me. Be it a rough day at work or a personal disappointment, a glance at the moon reminds me of the Higher Intelligence continues to encourage me to Be. Here. Now.

Until next time,

Namaste

The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures. It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth in numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers. It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean-cradle of birth and of death, in ebb and in flow. I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life. And my pride is from the life-throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment.  – Rabindranath Tagore

 

Raksha Bandhan and the Little Boy from Aleppo

Yesterday, we celebrated Raksha Bandhan (Literally meaning A bond of Protection). Our family traditionally ties ‘rakhdi’ (the thread symbolizing the bond) around not just our brothers but also each other. I’ve got very fond memories of celebrating in India surrounded by family.

It’s different here in the USA. We celebrated after coming from work. It’s not a holiday as it is in India. It was good. Rituals have now come to mean more to me than ever before. Also, made phone calls to India, skyped with family in India and watched my baby niece show her antics. It cheers me up. 

But this morning, I saw the video of the Little Boy Omran from Aleppo. It has left me feeling so overwhelmed and helpless. My heart is shattered. No one deserves this. No One. I normally keep my thoughts to myself but not today. I am in tears. Even thinking about him makes me cry. I am sure a lot of others are feeling the same. Today, the feeling of helplessness is crippling me.

I want him to feel just as safe and secure as my little baby niece feels. In the case of my niece, I can at least ensure my voice is heard. How do I make my voice heard by Omran? Will he kplanet-earth-green-bow-17089463now how much he is loved? Ever? 

I work as a chaplain and I have learned to be able to ‘handle’ trauma. But I am also taught how to work through it. What about him? He is one child. Countless others are suffering. They need more than prayers. I know that. I do not have an answer today and it saddens me. 

I wish I could just tie a ‘rakhdi’ to the Earth (just like the photo above) to ensure everyone is protected. Maybe that’ll be comforting. 

In my mind, I am tying a ‘rakhdi’ on your wrist, Omran. I hope you know you are loved and cared for – I truly do.

May the lord of all beings protect you,
May the one who creates, preserves and dissolves life protect thee,

May Govinda guard thy head; Kesava, thy neck; Vishnu, thy belly;
the eternal Narayana, thy face, thine arms, thy mind, and faculties of sense;

May all negativity and fears, spirits malignant and unfriendly, flee thee;
May Rishikesa keep you safe in the sky; and Mahidhara, upon earth. – Vishnu Purana 5.5.14-23

Birthday Reflections This Leap Day

20160229_211943-002Leap Day 2016. Monday, February 29, 2016. Happy Leap Year!

February is birthday month for yours truly. And this year, like every year since 2012, I have been trying to be more mindful of my feelings as my birthday nears. I am a bit amused that my blog post on Leap Day 2012 was short and focussed briefly on the concept of Time.

Leap Day 2012 – I was happy with where I was in life, both personally and professionally. I was convinced that I will be getting married soon, will be working for my favorite long term care organization, and will be pursuing my MBA.

Leap Day 2016 – None of the above has happened. I am single, working for a major hospital system, and pursuing a Master’s degree in a field I had never even considered before.

Leading up to my birthday this year, I was feeling a bit bummed. The struggle has been internal – not being where I thought I would be at this age personally. I think growing up in the culture from which I come, I already had a vision for myself of what my life would look like at this age – a good husband, a good job, good in-laws and the capacity to be able to take care of them and my parents as well. It is even harder at times to imagine what my parents have to put up with as they stand by me in my atypical life.

Professionally, my 2012 self could not, in the wildest of dreams, have dreamt that I would be working as a hospital chaplain. I feel so aligned with this work – it is almost as if my soul sought this out for me. The dimension it has opened for me especially in terms of understanding my own faith is second to none. The potential of this work and the opportunities to serve through it really excite me.

So back to my birthday – Every birthday, a ritual that I have developed for myself is to go through all of the birthday cards I’ve received so far since I was two. Yes, my aunt gave me a birthday card when I turned two. This annual ritual helps me appreciate all the love that those cards represent while also reminding me of people who no longer are an active part of my daily life. While that does sound sad, it is actually oddly comforting. It is as if all the loves in the birthday cards rejuvenate me and fill me up with gratitude.

While there are questions and personal doubts even, I feel a sense of peace within. The trajectory of life continues to amaze me. I intend to continue to remind myself of the awesomeness that surrounds me daily. I am convinced that I am not alone. I intend to be the best version of Shama I can be – every single day. Even on days, where I am super deprived of my masala chai 🙂

When the misfit pieces of life’s brokenness come together and Life sees itself through the Light within, It then becomes art – a mosaic. I am learning to put the broken pieces together – one at a time.

Until next time,

Namaste

“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” – Mark Twain

 

Shivji, Are You Listening? – Signs From The Universe

There are times in life when things do not make sense. For a person of faith, it feels as if it’s a test of one’s faith. The horror of it might set in when one realizes that one just might not have enough faith in one’s Ishvara.

I used to have those ‘horror moments’ a lot. I used to get really anxious and pray for Ishvara to understand ‘my situation.’ The form of Ishvara that I continue to turn to most is that of Shivji. My prayers range from being thankful to being angry. Most of the time, my prayers are conversations with Shivji. Lately, I have been telling Him about my spiritual journey so far and the doubts that rise in my mind (as if He doesn’t know!).

Those who know me personally are well aware of my innate need to prove that my faith as a Hindu necessitates that I stand for social justice.  This is just how this works (for me). I am unsure why I am like that.  Even if He doesn’t respond as quickly as I would like, today I received signs from the Universe that Shivji is indeed listening.

For a variety of reasons, empowering women is very important to me. I recently had a conversation with a friend regarding this topic and ended up getting really frustrated towards society, including religious leaders, that treat women as second class citizens. I ended up venting this frustration out on my dad and said to him, “I am sure Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi would not discriminate.” Today, I reached the chapter titled ‘Liberation from Patriarchy’ in the book Hindu Theology of Liberation by Anantanand Rambachan.  Then as Shivji would have it – there is a quote from Bhagavan Maharshi in which He says:

“Since jnana (Knowledge) and mukti (Deliverance) do not differ with the difference of sex…[…] Her body is also the abode of God.” 

I was in tears. And to top it off, the local news radio station does a special section titled ‘Star Date’ which talks briefly about a particular topic in Astronomy. Now, again for those who know me, this is a big deal. Today’s section was on John Dobson – the amateur astronomer who developed his own patent telescope that came to be known as the Dobsonian telescope. The best part, for me,about this brief special (and something I didn’t know about Dobson) was that he was an ordained monk in the Vedanta Society!!! Vedanta!!!!  Saying I was elated is an understatement.

Getting confirmation to follow the path of faith-based social justice from the one whom I consider my Guru – Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi – and a confirmation to follow the path of scientifically-enriched Vedanta from the most popular amateur astronomer – John Dobson.  

I got you, Shivji. I know You are listening. 

Until next time,

Namaste

Happiness is your nature. It is not wrong to desire it.  What is wrong is seeking it outside when it is inside. – Sri Ramana Maharshi 

To Speak Or Not To Speak – Being a Minority – Generation 1.5

So, I was browsing through a news article online. One thing led to another and I ended up on YouTube, binge-watching A R Rahman songs. And of course, I ended up on Maa Tujhe Salaam. Now I cannot remember which particular link it was, but I ended up reading the comments section below the video [You know the part you sometimes regret reading].

The conversation revolved around immigrating to another country, feeling torn between wanting to belong to both and feeling left out from both countries. This is too real. As an Indian-born Canadian living the USA, I know what this feels like.

When I moved here as a teenager, I was old enough to have emotional attachment to people in India and the land itself. I was young enough to adapt to living in a new culture, a new society. I feel that I am not exactly first generation and definitely not second generation either. This is hard. I feel like I am Generation 1.5.

Some people on YouTube said that even though they try to get involved in their local communities and enjoy living here in USA, they feel that ‘others’ do not ‘completely accept’ them as ‘Americans.’ Many naturalized citizens tend to feel this way. Not to mention the highly negative reactions that exploded on social media when Nina Davuluri became Miss America 2014. 

One person went to the extent of saying : How can we expect to be accepted while the African-American community [whose presence in the USA precedes any other colored minority] are still struggling for acceptance? <– This really spoke to me. This is SO true.

As the country prepares for the presidential elections in 2016, will they show sensitivity towards the minorities who live in the American society as if it’s their own?

At the end of the day, every human is born with an innate need to belong. I know people don’t see me as Canadian and that I will always be the ‘Indian woman.’ I am perfectly okay with that. I do think that there is a lot of teaching and learning that needs to happen in the larger society so everyone can feel accepted, irrespective of which country they emigrated from.

I look forward to the day when people will not question the fact that India is indeed in Asia, whether I am Mexican or Indian or Pakistani and not doubt my English skills. And that one day, the answers to these questions won’t matter.

Until next time,

Namaste

Our hearts where they rocked our cradle, Our love where we spent our toil,
And our faith, and our hope, and our honor, We pledge to our native soil.
God gave all men all earth to love, But since our hearts are small,
Ordained for each one spot should prove Beloved over all.
~Rudyard Kipling

On this day…to the mothers

To the mothers.

First, the biological mother or the adoptive mother (The Mata, Maa, Mommy): the one who gives birth to you. She is the one who bring you in this world and looks after you until you no longer need her (or that’s what you think!)

Second, the Mother Land (The Matrubhoomi): the country, the land that you are born in; The one who gives you an identity beyond your family.

Next, the Adopted Land (The Karma bhoomi ): the one that you move to; the country where you live, earn and settle.

Finally, Mother Nature (The Shakti, The Creative Power of the Universe): the power, the energy that allows all of the above to exist in herself.

It’s such a big deal to be a mother: To be the one to conceive, to give birth, to create another life form. Inexplicable.

Appreciating parents is a major part of the Indian culture. How honestly are we doing so is something that is a debatable topic. Either way, hailing from this culture, I know what the status of biological parents is in a person’s life.

The idea of Matrubhoomi was introduced to me when I was a lot younger whilst watching Mahabharat on Doordarshan. A person owes loyalties, has a duty towards the land that he or she is born in. To me, this is India – Bharata, Hindustan.

The same is true for Karmabhoomi. One also has a duty towards the adopted land. Moving to another country has its perks. So if you intend to enjoy the perks, you should also make sure that a sense of duty is also involved. It is part of ethical living. To me, this is North America – I have deep ties with both Canada and United States of America.

And of course, there is Mother Nature. Most people think of Mother Nature when there are storms brewing or something out of human control occurs. When everything is running ‘normally’, no one seems to think about Her. It is not news how majorly humans have messed up this beautiful blue planet. I think it’s high time, we show some appreciation in this aspect as well.

Having said all of this, I don’t think just one day is enough to show a mother how appreciated she is. So make sure, the next time you see or think about any one of these mothers…say a little prayer of gratitude. She deserves it.

Happy Mother’s Day!!!

Original Post here

Being Broken-Hearted

Being heartbroken. Sounds familiar, right?

A life situation : She loves him, with every essence of her being. She believes he loves her the same.

“I’d never leave you.” He promised her. “I’d rather die.” He said.

He left – but did not die. 

Since then, she died a different death. 

A different life situation:

He had kept his promise to wait for her when she moves to his country. She said yes and married him. 65 years later, he died before her. 

She looked me in the eyes and said, “You know, I loved him with everything I am. Do you mind if I cry? I am so heart-broken right now.” 

My personal grief story : A heart-break that threw me into the deepest end of darkness I have ever known in my life. Being dumped, especially in a way that I was, has had major repercussions for me.

There was now suffering. A suffering that reflects a loss of meaning, a loss of purpose, a loss of hope and a loss of love.

A suffering that is so profound that it inhibits one’s ability to think clearly and to care for oneself. A suffering which questions why are you even alive without your loved one.

Thus, begins the journey through grief.

Until next time,

Namaste

Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.  ~William Shakespeare

I Am My Parents’ Daughter

If you’re of South Asian community, then I am sure you’ve heard the following phrase said to you by some one at some point in your life in at least one South Asian regional language. The classic one that some parents of daughters tend to use. It goes : Yeh to mere bete jaisi hai [She is like a son to me] or Mere liye to bete se bhi badh kar hai [She is more than a son to me]

I understand the sentiment behind saying this. I get it. But what I don’t understand is the inherent hierarchy that these phrases seem to highlight. To me, these phrases tend to imply that if a daughter can do all the jobs/tasks/chores that a son is supposed to do then she is “like a son.” I object!

Clearly, that’s why I am writing this post. My parents, thankfully, have never used this phrase for me or my sister. They’ve raised us in a manner they think is the way in which daughters should be raised.

They’ve raised as family-oriented, culturally-aware, women who can think independently and sometimes tend to argue with the parents. Cliché much? I don’t think so.

My parents have not said to us : You cannot do this task/chore/job. Be it picking our college degree or shoveling snow. Be it assembling the oh-so-interesting Ikea furniture or driving solo through North America. Be it making concrete plans for the future or lack thereof. And most importantly (to me anyway) : Be it studying scriptures of the Hindu Dharma or questioning some traditions and practices of the culture.

I will never forget the day when I was offered the opportunity sign up for Clinical Pastoral Education and train as a Chaplain. My parents, who were just as clueless as I was at the time about this whole chaplaincy deal, did not say :We don’t know anything about this, so don’t do it.  Their actual response was : We don’t know anything about this but from what we are reading it sounds like a great way to be a Hindu. Go for it!

These are my parents. They’ve brought us up to believe in ourselves and supported us in ways I never thought possible. Their advice to us is clear – If you’re going to take up any type of commitment, make sure you give it your all and leave the rest to God.

My parents raised their daughters as daughters. They do not need to compare my life events, my achievements (or lack thereof) to anyone else. They realize, being strong people of faith themselves, that they give it all they knew in how to raise daughters and really, left the rest up to God.

We’ve had our share of friction. I think friction between parents and their children is probably inherent to the relationship. We do not always agree on issues or ways to do things. But we communicate clearly. If they’re not happy about something, they make it clear.

So why am I sharing this? I want to be seen as who I am. A woman. A woman is amazing not because she can do/act/achieve just like a man. A man’s achievement is not a standard or a bench mark for a woman. I do not want to have to be compared to a man. ‘Cos frankly, ain’t nobody got time for that!

I am my parents’ daughter. And proud to be one.

Until next time,

Namaste

Do you not know I am a woman? When I think, I must speak. ~William Shakespeare, As You Like It

The Power of Personal Story-telling

One of the most amazing aspect of being a chaplain is the opportunity to hear people share their stories. It does not cease to amaze me every time someone shares something so personal, so emotional and so moving. There are lessons in these stories – for both the story-teller as well as the listener.

People share stories for a variety of reasons. Some share truly personal experiences where as some choose to share a third-party version of a story. When I say story, I do not mean something fictional. By saying ‘story’, I mean a personal experience that a person can recall and share in as much or as little detail. The details that we as chaplains listen for are expressed through feelings and emotions or even lack thereof.

I have learned over time that every time we share an incident or experience with another, we pick and choose how we phrase things. This can be an indicator of where a person is emotionally in dealing with that particular event.

There are so many powerful stories I have heard are the ones where the story-teller is the person thriving after experiencing a horrific loss or been a victim of an atrociously abusive relationship or experienced racism, religious prejudice, human trafficking and so on. These are major social justice issues – issues that should not have a spot in the 21st Century. Nevertheless, these are the times we live in.

When individuals share their story of surviving and eventually thriving after going through a terrible event/incident in their personal life, they create a brilliant space to inspire others to rise against atrocities, just as they did. All that is truly needed to start a movement is for one person to stand up and say – It cannot go on like this anymore. That moment, that clarity brings with it immense courage. And that courage is what inspires a positive change.

Until next time,

Namaste.

You are never alone or helpless. The force that guides the stars, guides you too. ~Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar