India: Pictures from Shiva Country

Parmarth Niketan, the ashram where we stayed in March, is in northwest India, where Shiva is the revered local divinity. As Krishna is in Vrindivan, so Shiva is through this region. Here are some pictures of shrines to and images of Shiva.

This is the beautiful face of the Shiva statue that sits on the platform over the Ganges.  It is on this platform that major worship  and celebration events are held.

This is the beautiful face of the Shiva statue that sits on the platform over the Ganges. It is on this platform that major worship and celebration events are held.

Longer view of Shiva on a sunny morning. Sorry for the power lines; I took it from the window in our room.

Longer view of Shiva on a sunny morning. Sorry for the power lines; I took it from the window in our room.

Taken on an overcast afternoon, but it shows the lion and other symbols that usually accompany Shiva.

Taken on an overcast afternoon, but it shows the lion and other symbols that usually accompany Shiva.

Exterior of a small village shirne to Shiva and Shakti.

Exterior of a small village shirne to Shiva and Shakti.

Shiva (left) and, smaller, Shakti inside the shrine. Notice that Shiva is decked in flowers, and Shakti is dressed in silks. She reminded me of the Infant of Prague, who is often  dressed by devoted women in Italian Catholic churches.

Shiva (left) and, smaller, Shakti inside the shrine. Notice that Shiva is decked in flowers, and Shakti is dressed in silks. She reminded me of the Infant of Prague, who is often dressed by devoted women in Italian Catholic churches.

Incredibly, intricated carved Shiva shrine. Very Detailed, very colourful!

Incredibly, intricated carved Shiva shrine. Very Detailed, very colourful!

Close-up of one of the friezes on the shrine. There are hundreds.

Close-up of one of the friezes on the shrine. There are hundreds.

Dancing Shiva, in the garden of Parmarth Niketan

Dancing Shiva, in the garden of Parmarth Niketan

Quaker Concepts: Unity

Unity, in Quaker terms, is a staggering concept. It is reached not through voting or debating, but through silent discernment during a Meeting for Worship on the Occasion of Doing Business– short form “Meeting for Business.” During the business meeting an action is proposed, or a draft minute is presented. There is some discussion. If the item is of major importance, it is set aside to “season” for a time; that is, the decision will be made after a month or two (or ten), after everyone has had a chance to think about it and to practice discernment on his/her own. If it is a simple, practical matter, the decision might be made at the same meeting during which it is presented.

Unity  is reached by the movement of the Spirit among the gathered Friends. Sometimes this movement is palpable; other times it is not. This is difficult to describe or explain to anyone who has not experienced it, but is instantly recognizable once it is experienced.

William Penn, the English nobleman who left his title and his family to found the city of Philadelphia (city of Brotherly Love) and the state of Pennsylvania, wrote of Unity:

The objective of the Quaker method is to discover Truth which will satisfy everyone more fully than did any position previously held. Each and all can then say, ‘That is what I really wanted, but I did not realise it.’

The attainment of unity within the meeting is not the same as the attainment of uniformity. Unity is spiritual, uniformity is mechanical.

For a more thorough discussion of Quaker Unity, read Beyond Majority Rule, by Micheal J. Sheeran.

Quaker Stories: Two Writers of Good Books with Quaker Themes

ANN TURNBULL

No Same, No Fear

Forged in the Fire

Seeking Eden

quakerbook2   Ann Turnbull’s trilogy, featuring Susanna and William, begins in Shropshire, England in 1662;  takes us through the plague and the Great Fire of London in the second book;  and ends with  Friends beginning new lives Pennsylvania, in 1684. These stories trace the lives of two Quakers, teenagers at the beginning of the first book, No Shame, No Fear.  William is not a Friend in the beginning; but becomes convinced early on. It is his attraction to Susanna that spurs his interest. He begins to attend Meeting for Worship and to learn Friends’ way of living and gradually comes to the decision to commit himself to a Quaker life. The first book is the story of his convincement, so strong that he defies his father, thus losing a considerable inheritance;  and of  the growing love between him and Susanna.

In the second book, Forged in the Fire, William has gone to London to work and save money so that he can marry Susanna. The life of Friends in London is richly detailed, including  imprisonment under stark, gruelling conditions. Much of the story is told in their letters to each other. But eventually Susanna cannot stand being away from William, and she sets off on her own  to find him– an extraordinary act for a young woman in 1664. She arrives in London shortly before the fire, and the account of their escape from the fire forms a fascinating and frightening section of the narrative.

Seeking Eden,  Susanna and William leave England with their family, their son, Josiah,  now an adult and ready to begin life in business and their daughter not much younger. Pennsylvania, founded by Friend William Penn, holds delicious promise of a life led by Friends’ principles, with opportunity for work and comfortable life, surrounded by and living with a community of Quakers. And the promise seems to be delivered from the moment of their ship’s arrival. But a serpent is waiting, and Josiah is shaken to the very foundation of his beliefs when he realizes that Quakers participate in the slave trade.-

Turnbull does not prettify the lives of Friends in the 17th century. She paints a vivid picture of the persecution, incarceration, beatings, unrestrained public bullying and intensity of the drive to destroy the Religious Society of Friends. The detail about early Friends’ convictions, customs and perseverance is humbling; their suffering is heart-rending, and their courage in the face of, literally, the entire force of the monarchy is inspiring. The books are marketed as “young adult” reading; but they are beautifully written and carefully plotted. I enjoyed them immensely. These books are an enjoyable way to learn a little bit about the early history of the Religious Society of Friends.

IRENE ALLEN

Quaker Silence

Quaker witness

Quaker Testimony

Quaker Indictment

quakerbook1   Irene Allen writes detective novels in the great tradition of Miss Marple, Miss Silver, Kate Fansler and other great amateur “lady detectives.” The twist is that Ms. Allen’s detective, Elizabeth Elliot, is also the Clerk of a Friends Meeting in Cambridge, Massachusettes.  Intricately and beautifully plotted, with enough red herrings to satisfy even the most experienced mystery reader, these novels are a good read for the detecting alone.

But the twist adds a wry and honest peek into the workings of a Quaker meeting; not shying away from the personality conflicts, vast differences of belief and principles within a meeting; and the Clerk’s delicate work in the subtle process that  leads to a Sense of the Meeting. All of this is woven into the plot seamlessly, with obvious first-hand knowledge of how meetings work and a good sense of humour about Quaker quirks. These books are fun to read if you’re already a Quaker: I found myself nodding and even laughing as our “types” showed up at Meeting for Business. And if you’re not already a Quaker, these books are a delightful way to get some insight into meeting processes.

My favourite quote from Elizabeth Elliot, clerk of the meeting: Orderly discussion of a problem is positively un-Quakerly.

What Technology Can Be Used To Create Spiritual Experience?

This questions was asked on a discussion forum. The following was my answer:

No technology is needed. Nor are drugs, medical equipment or any other means outside your own mind and body, heart and soul. The possibility of spiritual experiences is often overlooked because we are not paying attention. And spiritual moments, in my experience, are more often small and meaningful than big and eventful. For me, spiritual experiences come every day. Meditation leads to spiritual experience; I meditate twice a day. Some people find prayer spiritually uplifting. The object is to connect with the Source (God, Goddess, Nature, the Absolute, the Spirit–whatever your terminology is), to feel the connection and carry that feeling into whatever you do in daily life. Connection is between you and the Source. Nothing else is needed to connect, just your desire and consciousness. When you experience the connection– a sense of joy, of elation, of contentment or comfort–you can carry that with you as you deal with people, work, situations, etc. all the time. You can have a “spiritual experience” all the time.

Gratitude: The Grace of Lifelong Friendship

 teacher whom I respect and admire posts daily on Facebook a list of “Appreciations”  — a spiritual practice of public gratitude for the graces and joys in her life. As she intended, many of her friends and students are now doing the same.

My practice is more private: Every morning I go over the day before, thinking of both gifts and challenges of the day just past. I often have those thoughts of what I could/should have said; or what I could/should have done. But the past is the past, and the best any of us can do about our mistakes is to learn from them and not repeat them. Usually, however, the gifts and graces far outweigh the problems and “off” days of my life.

I have been extraordinarily blessed all my life.

My parents were extraordinarily loving, fair and strong, in spite of the “scandal” of divorce that still shocked people in 1957.  They were completely devoted to their children, and never once spoke ill of each other nor made my brother or me feel we had to chose between  them.

I was fortunate in the education I received, in California public schools which at that time (pre-Proposition 13) were the best schools in the country, including the University of California Berkeley, consistently rated one of the top five universities in the world.

I was less fortunate in being brought up in a misogynistic, guilt- and fear-driven Catholic Church; but I realized that the core of that form, the Presence of Christ during the mass, is the only thing that really matters, and the rest is useless to spiritual life.

Both of my marriages, the first in my late twenties, with a man I’d met at Cal; the second in my fifties with a man I had described perfectly thirty years earlier and sought for all those years; have been full of love, grace, laughing and crying together. And they are cordial friends, the men of my past, present and future.

But the most amazing blessing, the most enduring relationship and deepest, soul-connected companionship has been with my best friend, Jo. She laughs, and my heart sings. She weeps, and my heart aches.  

We have known each other, been friends through thick and thin, through highs and lows, through indescribable pain and through unbridled happiness. We have grown from spiritually restless, desperately seeking teenage girls in a small-town high school  to women of both material-world abilities and successes, and spiritual awareness and depth of understanding. I cannot imagine my life without her.

Jo

Jo

We both turn sixty-five this year; she is four days older than me. We discovered, years after we met, that we were also born in hospsitals just a few miles apart. A star danced . . .  Since then she has given me more than I can even articulate. From our meeting, we shared the depths of our political and social awareness together, just us, among age-peers who were completely oblivious to the outside world. She introduced me  to Quaker philosophy and practice, which form the core of my path to spiritual discovery and every growing awareness. I supported her at her wedding; she supported me at mine (both of them). Yes, she laughs, and my heart sings. She weeps, and my heart aches.

So I think of her every day when I do my self-reflection. I think of my other friends, too; they are all very, very dear to me.  But Jo has been there longer than anyone else; we know each other at a level so deep we can’t articulate it in words. Our connection is JUST THERE, always.

Jo and me at my wedding to Ian

Jo and me at my wedding to Ian

Mahatma Gandhi Museum, New Delhi

On our last day in India, we visited the Gandhi Museum. This, for me, was the most emotional experience of our time in India. The museum is  in the house where Gandhi spent the last few months of his life, and his room there has been preserved as it was the day he died. He went outside with his granddaughters for his usual walk, and was shot by a man in the crowd. The place he fell is marked by a small gazebo shrine in the garden.

Mahatma Gandhi's bedroom as he left it on the day he died.

Mahatma Gandhi’s bedroom as he left it on the day he died.

The "World Peace Gong" in the garden, near the entrance to the museum.

The “World Peace Gong” in the garden, near the entrance to the museum.

The museum is curated brilliantly, the ground floor comprising photographs, letters, drafts of the constitution and other valuable documentary artifacts, along with reconstructions of those for which the originals were lost or damaged beyond repair; and the second floor completely given over to interactive exhibits designed to engage children from very earliest school age through secondary school in their country’s journey to independence.

I was astonished by the diversity and creativity of the exhibits, which included

a full size replica of a steam engine with a compartment in which Gandhi would have travelled so children could sit on the train and feel “what     it was like” to travel the way he traveled

a wall map of Gandhi’s famous walk, with hand-sized and shaped icons below which children could touch to light up the steps of the journey

several hand-stitched story quilts in designs and colours especially attractive to young children

Gandhi’s bedroom from his first ashram, furnished with his own furniture

and rooms full of other exhibits that spoke directly to children and teenagers.

Lifesize sculpture of Gandhi and his wife

Lifesize sculpture of Gandhi and his wife

Hand-stitched Tree of Life quilt

Hand-stitched Tree of Life quilt

The gardens of the house are huge, and furnished with sculptures and a few outdoor exhibits. There is a large terrace facing the garden where Gandhi walked each afternoon to meet the hundreds of people who came each day to meet Gandhi-ji. It was on such a walk that day, when he went out to meet the people who loved him and the people he loved, that he was shot and killed by a deranged Hindu radical.

The place of Gandhi's death is marked by a small shrine in the garden (small structure in distant center of this picture).

The place of Gandhi’s death is marked by a small shrine in the garden (small structure in distant center of this picture).

We left the museum by the back gates. The irony of this had to make us laugh, or I would have started weeping all over again:

A major training facility for India's military, with an antique cannon literally aimed at the Gandhi Museum.

A major training facility for India’s military, with an antique cannon literally aimed at the Gandhi Museum.

All through our visit, as we looked at the exhibits, I wept. I couldn’t help thinking that Gandhi never despaired, that he nearly killed himself by fasting until the inter-religious fighting stopped. What could he have done if he lived now? And if his soul is embodied again, does he remember who he was and what he did in India? Is he a leader now? (Doubtful, or things would be better.)

This museum is an homage to a great man, to a past when peace was possible by the will of a man because he was respected and revered by people everywhere in the world. Gandhi, through his non-violent resistance, actually had more power to effect peace than any single person in our time. I don’t know exactly what that says about the world as we live in it, but I don’t think that whatever it says is very positive.

India: Joyous Moments in Krishna Country

Entry courtyard to the temple

Entry courtyard to the temple

Coming home from India, it seems perfect for me to write first about the high point for me of our stay there.. We saw, heard, smelled, touched and tasted lots of unfamiliar things, experiences to remember for a lifetime. But for me, our visit to the Krishna Balaram Mandir in Vrindavan, the home temple of Krishna Consciousness, was the happiest experience of our trip. The Krishna Consciousness movement (ISKcon) is a 20th century movement founded by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. His inspiration was to renew joy and life in the worship of Krishna, the god-hero in the Baghavad- Gita, one of the holy books of India. He brought the movement to the USA in 1966. He died in 1977, and his body is interred at this temple.

We arrived at the mandir during noontime worship. This was the most joyful worship I’ve ever seen; people sang and danced in ecstatic happiness.  The “Hare Krishnas” may be viewed in the USA as airport and sidewalk nuisances, but here, where people revere and love Krishna, their worship is deep, ecstatic and true. The lead musician here was so obviously American that I gave him a big smile and a wave, which he returned doubly.

Then  a genuine Little Old Lady in a gorgeous yellow sari, grabbed me and pushed me toward the altar, where one of the monks was distributing flowers after worship concluded. She came up to about my armpit and looked very frail, but she was wiry and surprisingly strong. She gave me several good pushes. She spoke only Hindi, so I asked our

One of the many images of Krishna

guide what she was saying. He said she really, really wanted me to have some flowers from Krishna’s altar. But because I don’t worship Krisha as God, I felt that I shouldn’t take flowers when so many believers wanted them. Nevertheless, our guide waded into the crowd and got some flowers for himself and gave me some of his. The Little Old Lady smiled and patted me on the arm.

One of the three altars draped with flowers

One of the three altars draped with flowers

The sun is hot and blinding by March in India, but, even though the temple had a courtyard open to the sky, it was cooler and kinder to the eyes inside.   We paused a moment by the founder’s tomb, and by a beautiful sculpture of him. And Ian bought a copy of the Baghavad-gita at the book stall just outside the temple.

Later in the day we visited Krishna’s birthplace — a parallel to Christianity’s Bethlehem. Ironically, the actual reputed birthplace is in a building that abuts a mosque, and there have been constant legal wrangles about the spot since the 1930s. The wheels of justice –especially in civil suits– in India grind incredibly slow.

The birthplace mandir is huge and built of red sandstone, very different from all of the other temples we visited, which were of marble and/or granite. Photographs are not allowed in the major temples. No cameras, cell phones, or other electronic devices are allowed, and you are searched even more thoroughly than at the airport. There have been several bombings of major temples, and threats of more. The Indian government takes these seriously and the Indian military (not civil police) now guards these temples, machine guns slung over their shoulders.  They are polite and more-or-less laid back, but absolutely vigilant and aware of all the activity around them. It was chilling and disappointing to be surrounded by armed men at such an important  sacred site. The Indians visiting there seemed to either ignore the military or to take it in their stride. I couldn’t help feeling a deep sadness over the need for their presence.