A Yogi at Union Seminary: A Year in the Books and the Dirt

What did this aspiring Hindu yogi realize after my first year at the progressive Christian institution of Union Theological Seminary in the city of New York?

I realized that in going to Christian seminary that I no longer belong to Christianity, the religion of my upbringing and cultural heritage.

I also realized in going to seminary that I want to be a farmer.

It was an interesting year.

They tell us at orientation that Union is the kind of place which turns your faith upside down, shakes out all the loose change, and by the end of the ride you have hopefully a much deeper understanding of yourself as a spirit soul in the material world, one with a much tougher skin and a much deeper heart. I’m happy and grateful to be walking such a path, even if its not quite the existential crisis as advertised. What I have experienced is a clarity of calling, and for us folk of faith nothing is more sensitive than our calling. The personality and many manifestations of the Divine has many ways of suggesting to us our directions in life. If anything, despite the many flaws of our institution and our community, Union is a place where the many voices of the Divine reveal her/himself to us constantly in our classrooms, contemplation, and communion.

I’ve been writing about my experience as a Hindu at Union here at The Huffington Postand at the Union In Dialogue blog on Union’s website. What strikes me now is the very first piece that I wrote for HuffPost Religion, in which I described ”Why Being a Hindu Has Made Me a Better Catholic.” The spirit of that reflection is one I still adhere to with all of my heart, but the letter of it is different now. Ironically it was my class on “Double Belonging” with the esteemed and humble Dr. Paul Knitter, author of Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, which revealed to me that I was not actually a double or multiple-belonger in terms of my faith. In exploring the concept of belonging, I realized how much my body, mind, and soul truly finds deep solace and meaning in the bhakti-yoga tradition. No doubt this had much to do with my immersive experience of monastic life of the bhakti tradition in the five years before I came to Union, but through my studies with Dr. Knitter and our fellow students, I could see also the deep integrity of what it meant to belong to Christianity, and how I must honor that integrity by claiming any romantic or sentimental notions of belonging to the faith tradition I was raised in.

I began to realize that while I still had deep resonance with Christian faith and experience, and found or recovered a wonderful connection with the communal sacrament of communion in our chapel services at Union, I could understand that my faith was securely centered in the yoga of the Hindu/Vedic tradition. This is who I am now, who I want to be, who I want to become and represent as a person of faith. This realization was nothing traumatic for me personally, although sometimes I got the indirect sense it may have made others uncomfortable. At the same time, through the living and vital example of Dr. Knitter and my eco-feminist mentor Dr. Chung Hyun Kyung, I could see that not only was double or multiple-belonging truly something real and possible in our world of faith, but that, as Father John Dunne writes, it is the “spiritual adventure of our time.”

While I’ll took a distinct step out of Christian identity, I also took a deep step into true resonance and understanding with some of the most powerful, relevant, and enlightened aspects of Christianity. This came through the tremendous fortune to study the tragic, comic, and political with Dr. Cornel West the many strands of Christian social ethics withDr. Gary Dorrien, and the vast and visceral threads of justice for the oppressed within the New Testament with Dr. Brigitte Kahl, author of Galatians Re-Imagined: Reading With The Eyes of the Vanquished. These wise souls, by shedding light upon the radical potential of Christian values to change the flawed fabric of our 21st century civilization, invited me to stand with them even as someone who belongs, faith-wise, as the “other.” Yet this never turned into a sense of alienation for me as a Hindu.

I am fortunate in this regard, because I know that this is not always the case even in such a place as Union. I always think back to orientation and our academic dean Dr. Daisy Machado telling us that people identified with Eastern spirituality usually do not face moments of prejudice or insensitivity from others at Union. In that sense us Buddhists, Hindus, and other Easterns have a certain cache in our otherness that keeps us aloof from the intensity of conflict which may come within Christian circles. Union is often a place where, because of the intensity of our experiences and realizations in terms of “othering” and marginalization it can be sometimes quite difficult to transcend our alienation in terms of race, sexuality, gender, and religious identity. It is part of the tremendous mystery of so much intense human nature packed together in our community. I hope and pray that the positive experience of my own religious diversity can be an opportunity to serve the ideals of diversity and inclusion that are the very soul of Union.

Amidst all this tumultuous energy, I am also grateful for a renewed clarity in my calling to serve as an ecological activist and now theologian. As I’ve written recently here and here, I’ve come to understand, for my own spiritual journey, that there is nothing more sacred, radical, or necessary I can do but to return to the land, to the soil. The bhakti-yoga tradition which I have been practicing for nearly a decade now, like so many traditions of faith, foregrounds values, such as loving devotion to God and to all living entities, which inherently promote sustainable and ecologically-sound communities, such as the Govardhana Eco-Village outside of Mumbai and the Yoga Farm community in rural Pennsylvania.

These communities are what eco-theologian Dr. Larry Rasmussen, in his new book Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics In a New Key, calls “anticipatory communities”, showing the way to a lifestyle which adapts, adjusts, and harmonizes with our changing planet and civilization. There is such a rich and fertile ground here to explore not only for those us called to return and restore itself to the arts of growing, cooking, and sharing food in the most healthy and sane ways, but also in exploring the spiritual values of ecological community and civilization which can help us answer the call of humanity’s greatest challenge to date. This is a challenge which compels us to learn how to cast aside our “arrogant eye”, as eco-feminist Sallie McFague writes, not only towards each other, but also in terms of all other life that not only shares this planet with us, but which is the foundation of our very existence.

I’m very indebted to Dr. Rasmussen, to Cynthia Peabody, Rabbi Larry Troster, and Bob Pollock of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and Dr. Chung Hyun Kyung for the chance to study with them and broaden my ecological literacy. This summer I will be participating in a series of organic farm internships with Bluestone Farm of the Community of the Holy Spirit in Brewster, N.Y., the Small Farm Training Center in West Virginia, and the Yoga Farm with the intention not only of learning how be a tiller of the land (after all what kind of eco-activist/theologian am I if I don’t know how to grow a tomato?) but also to deeply learn and imbibe from the souls in these communities as to how spirituality creates and sustains an ecologically sound life in the 21st century.

Now that I’ve plugged every single incredible person I have worked with this past year at Union and will work with, take a few moments to click on the various links and explore the vital work being done by these scholars and farmers.

On my farm journey this summer, I plan to extend my Yogi at Union series with a set of blogs titled “The Yoga of Ecology”, in which I will share my explorations into the anticipatory communities I will be serving at. I hope these blogs will inspire you to experience the sacred soil all around us and the sacred ground of the Divine in our heart.