The Yoga of Ecology: Ironbound to Green Faith and Environmental Justice

As an aspiring eco-theologian/activist/citizen, I am very grateful and fortunate to be part of the GreenFaith Fellowship Class of 2014. GreenFaith is an ecumenical/interfaith organization building bridges between the worlds of environmental justice, eco-theology, and stewardship.

The executive director of GreenFaith is Rev. Fletcher Harper, who is a Union alumnus and a good friend of many people here in our community. The Fellowship is a wonderful opportunity for like-minded and like-hearted souls from across the spectrum of faith to join with each other to create a green-rooted momentum to overcome inertia and create ecological inspiration in our faith communities.

I came upon the Fellowship when Fletcher spoke about GreenFaith in eco-theological courses I took last year with Dr. Chung Hyun Kyung and with Dr. Larry Rasmussen. I was impressed with both the competency and clarity of GreenFaith’s work in relation to the many myriad ways in which traditions of faith can serve the global environmental movement. GreenFaith was and is able to see, and act upon, how the local pictures of environmental justice work in dialogue with the larger systemic issues of our economic, cultural, and theological misconceptions in relation to how we live on the planet.

The Fellowship is an immersion experience in GreenFaith’s inclusive and expansive vision. Along with monthly webinars, guided readings, and chances to write and discern our own ecological biography, identity, and theology, the highlight of the Fellowship are three retreats where we join our Fellows in intimate community.

The first of these retreats happened recently (Nov 11-14) in Newark, New Jersey. We focused on the issues and realities of environmental justice (EJ), and it was an emotionally intense and challenging experience. Our Fellowship class was a diverse blend of Christian ministers and lay folk, agnostics and seekers, Muslims and Hindus (including myself). We came from Finland, from the Midwest, from Harlem, but in large part few of us had extensive experience dealing with issues of environmental justice. I know that my own budding ecological identity struggles to find a sense of cause and place in the realm of EJ. This retreat was a step forward for me and for many of us in helping to move beyond just thinking and theorizing about environmental justice towards feeling what this injustice is like.

On the first day we took a tour of the industrial areas around the port and airport of Newark, led by the Ironbound Community Corporation, a local EJ collective. The gray weather combined with the images, visages, sights, and smells of the pollution we were taking in created the sense we were in some kind of Limbo or Purgatory. This was an area that had been industrial since colonial times, and was now becoming a post-industrial landscape of empty shipping containers, piles of scrap heap, dioxin-infected Superfund sites (with small pine trees growing out of the top for “atmosphere”), ruined high-school football stadiums, and areas still affected by sewage-steeped flooding from Superstorm Sandy.

One image stood out for me: a eternal line of trucks attempting to enter into the port area. We could not see where this line of trucks began or ended. We could see the angry frustrations of the drivers, truly stuck in limbo. We were confronted with the truth that even if we have the privilege of being able to leave this hellish place, these drivers, and the people living in very close proximity to all of this pollution, do not have the luxury to leave this place, physically, emotionally, and economically.

How many times in our lives, even as we drive our Prius, as we compost our food, as we avoid GMOs, shop organic, conserve electricity, vote Green, and participate in GreenFaith Fellowships, do we ignore environments like this, the people who live in them, and the injustice which permeates and supports the whole rancid edifice? This tour of the Newark port, at the beginning of our retreat, was a prayer to us and from us that we should learn to no longer ignore these kinds of realities if we have the privilege to do so.

After the tour, we stopped at the Greater Newark Conservancy to absorb a healing, hopeful, and sensual urban garden experience. The Conservancy didn’t dull our outrage and disgust, but it showed us that people in the Newark community did not think their situation was hopeless, and that we could learn a great deal from their faith, grit, and determination.

The other confrontational experience of the retreat was a talk done by John Pajak, a leader in the Local 78 union who works in the Newark oil refinery. John talked about his experiences dealing with toxic exposures and safety regulations in his work, and how he constantly has to fight against decisions by management to shortchange these regulations in the name of profit. John considered his work to make sure the refinery ran as ethically and environmentally sound as possible his way of stewardship. Yet, when asked about alternative energies and his union participating in “just transitions” away from the work of the refinery, he was adamant that this was not a realistic possibility. He was frank that his livelihood and the livelihood of his fellow workers was of primary importance, and if people were to insist on advocating for the abolition of fossil-fuel energy, he would fight against it.

For me, it was yet another experience of being forced and compelled to see through the eyes of those who don’t share the instincts and misconceptions of my privilege. It is easy for those of us who don’t work in such an oil refinery to demand that such “monstrosities” be condemned from the face of the Earth. How often do we understand that such condemnation is also a condemnation of the honest efforts of the workers, many of whom are much more acutely aware of the justice issues surrounding their work than we give them credit for. There are no easy answers to the ethical and environmental dilemmas that places like the Newark oil refinery present to us, but there will be no answers at all if we don’t listen to those immersed in these realities, and how their experiences can qualify our naiveté.

Our first retreat together was a not-so-gentle reminder that to stand up for the planet, and the living beings that we share this planet with, as people of faith is no easy undertaking. We experienced the depth of reality not only in the deep undersides of Newark, but also in the wealth of wisdom in the multiplicity of our faith traditions. We took in perspectives on faith and ecology in the Hindu tradition from Dr. Ved Chaudhary and from the Jewish tradition from Rabbi Larry Troster, GreenFaith Rabbinic Scholar in Residence. Rabbi Troster shared with us a call from eco-theologian Mary Evelyn Tucker to retrieve, reinterpret, and reconstruct the substance of our personal faith and of our faith traditions in order to relevantly, compassionately, and justly apply that wisdom to our existential ecological crisis.

I will continue to share my journey into the GreenFaith Fellowship here on the Union in Dialogue, the Union Forum, and the Union Voice.

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.

The Yoga of Ecology at Bluestone Farm

The Yoga of Ecology blog originally began in 2008 as a chronicle of the spiritually inspired agricultural exploits of the Small Farm Training Center project at the New Vrindaban bhakti-yoga community in the foothills of the West Virginia Panhandle. I wanted to share the unique experience I was having not only of monastic life in the 21st Century, but also the experience of being part of a community and project focused on the ideals of “simple living and high thinking.”

Inspired by the practical wisdom of bhakti-yoga scholar/teacher A/C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, communities like the Small Farm Training Center were and are presenting a model of anticipation as we move from an unsustainable model of industrialized and commodified civilization to an ecologically sound civilization.

The waves of time has moved my own journey and the journey of this blog in new directions and vistas. I am now studying for my master’s degree in eco-theology at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and once again I am drawn to the work of the soil, of the spirit within the soil, and to those people creating what has been coined by eco-theologians, including Larry Rasmussen in his latest book Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics In A New Key, as the anticipatory community.

These are sacred sanghas of individuals who are determined, courageous, knowledgeable, humbly setting themselves to the rhythms of our Mother Earth, showing us today the ways and means of harmony that will lead us to the cultural, ethical, and spiritual adaptation that tomorrow calls for.

I have realized that if I am going to be any kind of eco-theologian, eco-activist, eco-ethicist, or simple tiller of the soil, citizen of the Earth, my studies must include but not remain solely in the head-space. The Earth is the realm of the hands and heart, and with this understanding I have embarked this summer on a series of organic farm internships that will help me to learn the fine arts, skills, and meditations of grounded ecological life.

This is an experience that I hope will help me to overcome my nature-deficit disorderIn this mood, this blog will return this summer and beyond to a chronicle of experience in the communities I am serving in, as we share the bounties of our harvest that fill our plates and our spirit.

First, a brief word on what I mean by the the yoga of ecology. Having been a practitioner in the bhakti-yoga community for nearly a decade now, I have come to understand that the values of yoga, values that connect us, that yolk us, to the Divine are values that inherently create ecologically-sound lifestyles and communities.

Bhakti means devotion to the Divine, and this devotion, when it is the foundation of a spiritual community, creates an understanding of the boundless potential for spiritual grace and happiness that can only truly be found when we respect and understand the boundaries and spaces that Mother Earth asks us to live in. Devotion is a value which removes the dust from our heart, the dust of greed, envy, and selfishness, the internal pollution which manifests in the external pollution that wrecks our planet.

To farm, to till and love the soil, for the purpose of loving devotion to the Divine and to each other, is a form of yoga, and the soil also teaches us much about the true essence of spiritual values if we become tuned in enough to observe and listen.

I have spent the last three weeks in Brewster, New York, an hour north of the City, at Bluestone Farm and Living Arts Center, which is part of the Community of the Holy Spirit. From their website the resident Sisters explain a bit of their history and standing:

The Melrose house was established in 1961, in Brewster, New York, about an hour northeast of New York City.  In 2004, we began to pursue our interest in sustainable living by starting Bluestone Farm and Living Arts Center. Grown organically, the produce we cultivate and store (by drying, lactofermenting, and freezing) feeds us throughout the year. Over the last five years, the farm has come to include beekeeping, duck and chicken flocks, cows, maple syrup and honey production, and wine-making among other activities.

Together, we are engaged in weaving together our worship and our work, inspired by the writings of the late Thomas BerryBrian SwimmeEllen Davis, and Cynthia Bourgeault, among others. (Learn more about the “new cosmology” and thespirituality of farming.) 

Sisters Helena Marie, Carol Bernice, Catherine Grace, and Emmanuel, of the order of the Community of the Holy Spirit, are the wonderful and wise souls who have devoted their lives to this project. They are joined by Resident Companions Rev. Matthew Wright and Jody Ballew, and for the past few weeks and months interns Katie Ferrari, Yanick Savain, Sarah Lucas, and myself. We are a small but determined group, happily set to explore a way of life which carries deep meaning, potential, and soul.

The voices of the Sisters and Companions explain the heart of their intentions and work:

Melrose is a biodynamic farm community…practicing the principles of permaculture and the religious life, we foster a mutually enhancing Earth-human relationship through prayer, ongoing reflection, manual labor, celebration and the arts. We hold a deep respect for creation as a primary revelation of God, and by sharing our work, worship, harvest and all we learn we model sustainable living, social justice and spiritual fulfillment in the context of local community and resilience.

We stand at the turning point. We are a small group of people who have transformed a yard into a farm to help save Earth. We do not mean to startle or preach; we mean to declare that with intention and the labor of love we will ease the damage done to our Mother Earth by civilization gone awry. We mean peacefully to weave our own strand into the web of life as it exists here and now in our neck of the woods.

We eschew any form of agricultural practice that shocks, destroys, or otherwise inhibits participation of all the species in the life of our farm. We recognize the rights of beings to their habitat. Thus we enjoin upon ourselves the patience, tolerance, and care needed to proceed mindfully through our days.

Working together, we will learn from one another how to care for our Mother Earth. Working together, we will walk naturally into the great creative rhythm of the universe. We mean our lives together to be our act of love for one another, and in love we are confident of redemption.

 

Here is a photo essay of some of my experiences of life at Bluestone Farm:

 

 

Our backyard, the Bluestone Farm

 

St. Cuthbert’s House and the Farm

 

Jiffy, her daughter Mercy, and the milking shed where our beloved cow-friends give us gallons of fresh raw milk daily, which we drink and also use to make homemade butter and cheese

 

Resident Companion Jody Ballew hand-milks Jiffy. With the guidance of Jody and our “sacred cow-woman” Sr. Carol Bernice, I have already accomplished one of my main goals for the summer: learning how to milk a cow!

 

Sunset over the Farm

 

 

Freshly harvested strawberries and peas

 

Broccoli blooming

 

Katie and a ginormous kale harvest

The first gaillardia bloom

 

The caterpillar of the monarch butterfly

 

Sr. Helena Marie amongst the Margarittes

 

Matthew, Katie and myself displaying the spaceship kohlrabi

 

Matthew and our harvest of kohlrabi, collard greens, and snap peas

 

Cauliflower blooming

 

The omnipresent height of evolution: the weed. Farming is eternal. Weeding is eternal. If you don’t like weeding you are in the wrong business

More to come in the days ahead, including the unique ways we incorporate our harvest into our worship and celebration life, and the magic of biodynamic techniques and cow manure.

 For more, check out Bluestone Farm Fans on Facebook

Why This Devotee of God Doesn’t Think To Be Atheist Is To Be A Demon

There are two kinds of people in this world. Devotees and demons.

I think this is absolutely true.

But let’s parse this out a bit.

First of all, what is the source of my seemingly eccentric and dogmatic statement?

In the sixteenth chapter of the Bhagavad-GitaKrishna speaks of two kinds of natures that exist in this world and in our being: the divine and the demoniac. After listing a number of qualities that are of the divine nature, such as charity, aversion to faultfinding, purification of one’s existence, cultivation of spiritual knowledge, and freedom from envy and from the passion for honor, Krishna lists six qualities-pride, arrogance, conceit, anger, harshness and ignorance-which mark the demoniac nature. In the remainder of the chapter, Krishna unpacks further how the demoniac nature unfurls in our reality.

In the ninth verse of the chapter, Krishna says:

Following such conclusions, the demoniac, who are lost to themselves and who have no intelligence, engage in unbeneficial, horrible works meant to destroy the world.

In his commentary on this verse, renowned Vedic scholar/teacher A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada writes:

The demoniac are engaged in activities that will lead the world to destruction. The Lord states here that they are less intelligent. The materialists, who have no concept of God, think that they are advancing. But according to Bhagavad-gītā, they are unintelligent and devoid of all sense. They try to enjoy this material world to the utmost limit and therefore always engage in inventing something for sense gratification. Such materialistic inventions are considered to be advancement of human civilization, but the result is that people grow more and more violent and more and more cruel, cruel to animals and cruel to other human beings. They have no idea how to behave toward one another.

As a follower of the Gita, there is a straightforward-ness in Swami Prabhupada’s presentation which I find refreshing, important, and essential. It cuts to the rotted root of injustice, oppression, and hatred which exists in our world. It points to a deeper conception of why this injustice exists, in that without a conception of a divine reality, or a divine ethic, we all-too-fallible humans will all-too-often inevitably fall prey to the demoniac nature which surrounds us, and within us.

At the risk of appearing as a heretic (even more so than I appear to be already) to some more orthodox/literalist followers of the Gita, I want to critically examine what Krishna and Swami Prabhupada are saying in tandem in this chapter of the Gita. A surface interpretation of the dichotomy of the divine and demoniac here may provide a certain sense of clarity, but often what seems absolutely clear can lead to absolute expressions of theology and morality which can alienate and marginalize. This seeming clarity can also be at odds with people’s actual and visceral experience in the world, so I want to make a humble attempt to go a little bit deeper.

In thinking of my own experience doing Interfaith work in New York City, I have always made a sincere effort to be as open-minded and open-hearted as I can, with the appropriate respect and understanding of the natural boundaries that exist between different faith traditions. This mood has allowed me to develop wonderful relationships with Russian Orthodox priests, Reform Jewish rabbis, Wiccan priests, and just about everything else in-between. Being able to build, and walk across, bridges between faiths is one of the most important aspects of my spiritual journey. Real Interfaith work is a vehicle for creating the kind of deep and active compassion that is the most needed quality in this world at the present moment.

Yet as I went deeper into this work, I began to wonder what are the mechanics, as it were, of extending this joyful sense of communion towards those who identify as atheist/agnostic. More distinctly, I challenged myself to be as open-minded and open-hearted, with the same understanding of boundaries, with those I may encounter in my work and service who may not believe in God or a divine reality beyond the material reality we all inhabit together. This was a particular challenge for me, as I mentioned above, because to many within my tradition the terms atheist and demon go hand-in-hand. As usual, my innate sense of curiosity, or to put it more plainly, my independent streak, my desire to understand the truth beyond what may be “obvious” or “comfortable”, compelled me to question the basic assumption at hand: Does being atheistic mean one is inherently demoniac as described by Krishna in the Gita?

My opportunities to interact with serious and intelligent atheist thinkers were few and far between, so I was grateful to be invited to the 2012 World Faith Gala at the NYU Center for Spiritual Life this past December, with Chris Stedman as the featured speaker for the evening. Stedman is a unique figure in the world of Interfaith, as many of you already know. He is one of the founders of our esteemed community of thinkers here at State of Formation along with the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. He is the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University and a prolific writer, including blogging gigs at the Huffington Post and the On Faith blog at the Washington Post. Last year, Stedman published his first book Faitheist: How An Atheist Found Common Ground With The Religious, detailing his journey from being a “born-again” Christian through the acceptance of his alternative sexuality and eventual turn towards identifying as an atheist, along with his concurrent work and experience organizing for justice with communities of faith, even as he became someone for whom faith as most religious know it no longer necessarily applied.

As I listened to Chris that evening, and had the chance to meet him, the thoughts I had been having about my desire to understand the humanity and reality of the atheistic perspective became more intense. First of all, the work that Chris is doing is indeed of an enlightened nature. He is someone who understand the values of wisdom, empathy, and compassion. These are indeed spiritual values, but to understand them as spiritual values in the context of the work and convictions of someone like Chris Stedman means that one has to take a much broader, inclusive, open, and truer understanding of what it means to be spiritual. Hearing Chris speak, meeting him, and reading his words, it struck me that one cannot automatically assume that someone who is an atheist is inherently demoniac. Chris Stedman, who he is and what he does, is proof enough to me that what Krishna is saying in the Gita has to be understood with discretion, intelligence, and compassion. It has to be understood beyond the surface.

As our human civilization faces a massive existential crisis in understanding that our consumerist way of life is no longer, and never was, a sustainable way for us to interact with the web of ecology that surrounds us, what is needed most is the kind of dynamic communication that builds a sense of community across not only the boundaries of different faith traditions, but across all unnecessary boundaries between people who sincerely want to create justice on this planet today, tomorrow, and going forward. There is a tremendous courage that is needed to cross through these boundaries, and the realm of Interfaith is a place where this cutting edge exists.  In Faitheist, Stedman writes:

I believe that change will come from within-that by participating in Interfaith work, the nonreligious will broaden the meaning of such efforts and that the language used to describe them will change accordingly…I cannot begin to recount all of the times Interfaith work has opened up a space for robust conversations on problematic religious practices and beliefs. In fact, it has been a hallmark of my experience working in the Interfaith environment. Furthermore, it has allowed me to engage religious people about atheist identity and eradicate significant misconceptions about what atheism is and what it isn’t

I regularly hear from atheists who are leading the charge for Interfaith cooperation on their campuses and in their communities, and their experiences echo mine. They too have found that Interfaith is expanding to incorporate them and that, when done well, Interfaith engagement doesn’t require that people check their convictions at the door; it invites people to try and understand and humanize the other.

This understanding, and this shared grasp of what it means to be human in this world, at this time, is immeasurable more powerful and effective in organizing, working for, and living by the principles of divinity than by any surface labeling of who is divine and who is demoniac.

Let us look again to what Swami Prabhupada said above, to truly understand what is demoniac. The demoniac nature is that which exploits the material nature simply for the selfish exploitation of the senses, an exploitation that invariable leads to violence and cruelty. It does not take a great leap to understand, through the examples of our shared history and also our contemporary experience, that those who may claim to have an obvious “concept of God” can easily become wrapped up in the demoniac qualities. This is not a black-and-white equation. There are “devotees of God” who act demonically. There are “demons” who act divinely. If we stay on the surface of this dichotomy, without diving deeply, without the kind of courageous thought and activism that someone like Chris Stedman is offering, we will add nothing to the equation but the kind of irrational hatred that scars our very existence.

As I said before, the Gita is straightforward, and everything I have said above is not to discount that there are people who are obviously divine and obviously demoniac, and that those categories can fall alongside certain accepted parameters of faith/lack of faith. But instead of condemning every atheistic/agnostic person to be inherently demoniac, I challenge anyone who is challenged by this to think a little deeper, to broaden their experience working with and knowing the non-religious, to try to understand that the religious and the non-religious have a lot to learn from each other, and to read Faitheist. The true arts of compassion and communication require much more than intellectual and theological complacency. They require a courage based in a divine sense of love that belongs to all beings regardless of what they identify as.

To The Ashes, To The Soil, I Gladly Return

Courtesy of net_efekt at Flickr Creative Commons

This “lapsed Catholic”/retired Hindu monk/bhakti-yogi/radical seminarian gladly received ashes on his forehead at the culmination of our annual Ash Wednesday retreat at Union Theological Seminary. Although I am going through the spiritual irony and cosmic comedy of coming to a Christian seminary and realizing that I no longer belong to Christianity, my resonance with receiving ashes, with hearing the stern yet liberating reminder that “from ashes I have come, and to ashes I will return”, that I am, in one sense, just “dust in the wind”, hits many of the same notes in my spiritual sense of identity as my experience in receiving communion in our Chapel services. On the unique ground that I stand on, I include to an extent the traditional Christian understandings of these rituals, understandings that I was raised in and accepted as a child without much actual knowledge as to the meaning behind them. Yet as my spiritual sense of self grows (hopefully into some sense of steady and sincere adulthood at some point) I am compelled to see different angles of vision not only from my Hindu faith but also from my concerns as an ecological citizen of this planet.

I appreciated the dirtiness of our Ash Wednesday retreat, and by dirtiness I mean the reminder that the soil, the ground, and the earth that is the very foundation of our bodily existence is something that we must not lose touch with. I was very glad to have that contact with the soil, in its symbolic marking upon my forehead, and as it crumbled and smudged on my head at the Meditation station at our retreat where we could hold the dirt and ashes in our hands.

Having and holding that soil was a solid moment of prayer, aspiration, and reflection for my hopes that my development as an ecologically literate person will include the chance this summer to intern/volunteer with communities growing food in a just and sustainable way. Beyond that, to have the chance to answer my calling to be part of these communities after I leave Union, to participate in their natural revolution, their paradigm shift which will reconnect me and perhaps many of us, if we so choose, to the roots and soil, to the natural ecology, which is our primary mode of sustenance and inspiration, a mode we have grievously set aside in the last few centuries of our industrial/technological experiment in our civilization.

This reconnection to our roots is not just concerned with the sources of the elements that give us our ability to survive, thrive, and enjoy our bodily life, but it is a deeply spiritual concept. In the roots and in the soil is the spirit we are looking for, the relationship to the Divine that tends to be largely obscured in the way we live today. As living beings, we are yearning to reconnect to the soil and to these roots, even if we are not so conscious of this yearning. I am grateful that in my practice as a Hindu, in the tradition of bhakti-yoga, has given me a sense of this yearning in my own self. The term yoga itself means to reconnect to the Divine within and without us, and more and more I see that our ecological concern must become a yoga of ecology. If we are truly to reconnect, as much as we possibly can to the natural support that surrounds us, we must see our ecology, our household, in a spiritual context with a spiritual foundation.

The Hindu tradition is rich with connections to the soil that provide us with reminders and re-connections to the presence of the Divine. There is a congruous similarity to the Christian ceremony of ashes in the Hindu custom of applying tilaka to one’s body. Many of us are familiar with the different kinds of markings we see on Hindu practitioners, these different markings acting as ways for members of the dynamic diaspora of the Hindu spiritual culture to mark their different allegiances and devotions to different aspects and divine personalities in the tradition. In the bhakti-yoga tradition, when we are to enter a temple or any other spiritually important place, we mark our bodies with the symbols of the Vaisnava sect (worshipers of Vishnu) on twelve different places on our bodies.

Our friends at ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) Mauritius tell us:

“Tilak is worn for both sanctification and protection. When one wears tilak, he is reminded that his body is a temple and should be respected as such. Both body and mind should be kept clean. It also reminds others who see the person wearing tilak of Krishna. There are many different understandings of what the shape of the tilak represents for Vaishnavas, but generally ISKCON devotees accept that the U-shaped mark represents the heel of Lord Krishna, and the oval part represents a Tulasi leaf (sacred basil).

Tilak is made of clay from any sacred place, usually the banks of a sacred river. Gaudiya Vaishnavas usually use cream-coloured clay from a sacred lake near Dwarka, India, called gopi-chandan.”

A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who transplanted the bhakti-yoga tradition to the Western world in his missionary work in the 1960′s, encouraged some of his young students to create sustainable communities based on the ideals of traditional Hindu village communities. Swami’s celebrated saying, which for him was an inspiration from a similar saying from Mahatma Gandhi, was “Simple Living and High Thinking.” The understanding behind this statement was that a lifestyle based on a simple and sustainable connection with the soil, with the ground, with the source of our basic necessities, would free our minds from the clap-trap, whiz-bang, and bleep-bloop of modern life which gets largely in the way of our efforts at self-realization, at finding a happiness that is based in the eternal reality of our spirit and our loving relationship with God.

Vandana Shiva, in her essay “Homeless in the Global Village” from her excellent collection of essays titled Ecofeminism, done in conjunction with Maria Mies, echoes this clarity of the  very spirituality of the soil. She writes:

“For communities who derive their sustenance from the soil it is not merely a physical property situated in Cartesian space, for them, the soil is the source of all meaning. As an Australian aborigine said, ‘My land is my backbone. My land is my foundation.’ Soil and society, the earth and its people are intimately interconnected. In tribal and peasant societies, cultural and religious identity derive from the soil, which is perceived not as a mere ‘factor of production’ but as the very soul of society. Soil has embodied the ecological and spiritual home for most cultures. It is the womb not only for the reproduction of biological life but also of cultural and spiritual life; it epitomizes all the sources of sustenance and is ‘home’ in the deepest sense.”

The sacred clay or ashes on my forehead, and the sacred soil I pray to have encrusted in my fingernails after a long, honest day’s work in the nurture of the fields, air, and sun are indeed intimately connected. As the shape of our civilization changes, as we try to adjust to the changes we have brought upon the climate, as we accept the firm reminders from Mother Earth that our industrial/technical dream has run away from itself, we are going to be drawn back to the dirt that is our life, a dirt we have forgotten, that we have tried to scrub away. In a way, to go forward, somehow into a new paradigm of civilization, we will look back towards the natural and indigenous traditions, the ideas, both material and spiritual, which have shaped us, and we will find what we need to survive and endure.

The rituals of holy days like Ash Wednesday can remind us that back to the ashes, back to the soil, we gladly return.