Preceding Satguru Bodinatha Veylanswami's arrival in Houston in late August of 2009, Kalyani Giri, cultural/community news journalist for Indo-American News, conducted an interview with the prolific leader. She asked Hindu youth, ages 8-22 (including her 17-year-old daughter Anushka), in this city's Hindu American community to voice their everyday concerns, which she in turn relayed to Bodhinatha. The following is excerpted from her article in the August 21, 2009, edition of Indo-American News.
All my friends are American Caucasian, Hispanic, and African American. How do I help them understand Hindu values?
Bodhinatha: Do some research on the conservative values within the world's many cultures to have a better sense of what are considered "traditional values" in them and see what you find out. You will probably be surprised, for example, in how many cultures arranged marriage exists and unchaperoned dating is considered improper. Culture has to do with carrying forward values from one generation to the next. The more this is considered crucial, the more conservative a culture tends to be.
I find at times that I am the only brown-skinned person in my group of friends. Will I ever quit identifying myself by the color of my skin?
Bodhinatha: When everyone else is of one ethnicity and you are of another, it is natural to feel self-conscious about how you are different, e.g. being brown-skinned. However, the United States is a multi-ethnic society. When you have a chance to mix more with a diverse group of ethnicities, you will naturally feel less self-conscious.
I attempted to read the Mahabharatha (thankfully in English!). I found lapses in morality prevalent, such as a woman having many husbands, and these two groups of guys fighting with each other. I thought this was against the concept of Dharma.
Bodhinatha: To give any Hindu scripture a fair chance, it is preferable to study it with a qualified teacher who can answer questions such as the excellent ones you are asking. Studying it on your own easily raises doubts. This is true of any book in the world which is that old. Times have changed, and the ancient cultural context needs to be properly explained by a knowledgeable person to really give the book the chance it deserves.
The priests don't seem to care. I think they come to America with an agenda, maybe to enjoy a materialistic way of life. If we ask them questions, they patronize us. Do the temples really hold answers?
Bodhinatha: Most priests are trained only to perform ceremonies in the temple. Many have received eight years or more of training to become skilled in their priestly craft. However, most have little or no training in presenting the philosophy of Hinduism. This is left to others who have such titles as pundit or swami. The pundits and swamis are the individuals to approach for the knowledge of Hinduism you seek. Attending temples without any knowledge of how they work can be a frustrating and unrewarding effort. Clearly, knowledge about the inner workings of the temple and the pujas help us find more fulfillment in temple attendance.
How is it that Hindus are being converted to Christianity so easily in India, when my parents are always preaching about how great our religion is?
Bodhinatha: The percentage of Hindus in India that are being converted to Christianity has always been small. Quite often this conversion takes place among the poorest of society and material benefits are part of what is being promised for converting. If the material benefits are not forthcoming, many convert back to Hinduism. Lack of knowledge about Hindu traditions is also a cause of conversion. Thus, the best protection against conversion is to help needy Hindus and provide more knowledge about Hindu traditions.
Do you find religion divisive? I do. I see all these 80 or more organizations in this city and so much fighting among them. Why can't we get along, unite and present a strong, united front?
Bodhinatha: No area of life is inherently divisive. It is the people who are either divisive or not. Unity can be fostered in any group, be it religious, political, economic, social or cultural. It is done by focusing on what those involved have in common rather than their differences. Hinduism is no different--it all depends on the individuals involved.
How do you explain death to kids under ten years of age in the Hindu context.
Bodhinatha: Death is definitely a major challenge to deal with. It has a human, compassionate side, and a philosophical, mystical side. The human side needs to be emphasized first, expressing compassion and helping those involved deal with grief. This can take some time, after which those involved naturally become concerned with the philosophical, mystical side. The core concept here is that Hindus believe we experience many lives on Earth and many lives in the inner, heavenly worlds between births. Some of our lives on Earth are long and others are short. The measure of a life is not its length, rather it is its contents--how an individual lived.
What do you find most compelling about being Hindu?
Bodhinatha: Hinduism has a strong mystical tradition. Mysticism is the personal experience of God. In Hinduism, mysticism is part of the mainstream of the religion, not off on the side and looked at with skepticism or disdain by many within the religion. Hinduism not only gives you the high-minded teaching that man is God, as found in the Upanishads. It also gives you a multitude of practices, such as meditation, whereby you can personally experience the high-minded philosophy.
Isn't Hinduism more complicated/complex than other world religions?
Bodhinatha: Yes. Let's look at two ways in which Hinduism is definitely complicated. The first is that it contains a number of different denominations such as Saivism, Shaktism, Smartism and Vaishnavism, each with a different concept and name for the Supreme Being. Then, each of these denominations has a number of different philosophies. Once this denominational/philosophical diversity of Hinduism is understood, this aspect of being complicated is no longer a source of confusion. Hinduism is also complicated in that it offers advanced practices such as meditation, as described in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. For a comparison, in religion we have moral behavior versus meditation, which can be compared in mathematics to arithmetic versus calculus. Just because calculus is complicated doesn't mean it is not quite valuable for certain tasks. Likewise, a complicated religious practice such as meditation is also quite valuable when pursuing certain mystical goals.
What is your advice to young Hindus about religion and its significance in one's life?
Bodhinatha: This is a key question and deserves a much longer answer than can be given here. A materialistic life has no religious goal. Only what we achieve in the world is valued. All religions add to that a religious goal of one kind or another. The Hindu's ultimate religious goal is moksha. Stated simply, we are born on Earth for the purpose of coming closer to God. After many lifetimes on Earth, our experience of God is profound enough that we are no longer born on Earth.
How do you feel about the many Gods? My mom tells me they are aspects of ONE God. How do I explain this to my friends who are not of the Hindu faith?
Bodhinatha: Your mom has stressed the key point, which is that Hindus all believe in one Supreme Being. Of course, they differ on the name of that Supreme Being and its nature. To some the Supreme Being is Vishnu, to others Siva and so forth. Hinduism is a composite of various religious traditions which have different concepts. The fact that these different traditions generally get along well shows how tolerant Hindus are and explains why they are so tolerant of the world's other religions as well.
When my friends come to my home, they see Ganeshas all over the house. The story of Ganesha's head to me is whimsical, as my parents tell me about it all the time. How do I separate facts from myths?
Bodhinatha: Hindus are certainly different but hold many beliefs that others are realizing as the right way to look at the world. For example, handling conflicts through nonviolent means is a core Hindu belief. Reverence for all creatures, two and four legged. Vegetarianism. As to Ganesha's form, ancient religions such as the Greeks have Gods with animal heads. Even Christianity has angels with animal features. Hindus are not alone in this regard. As to separating facts from myths, that is a matter of personal perspective. Some Hindus take the Puranas literally, whereas others consider them all symbolic.
Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami is the publisher of Hinduism Today magazine and the Guru Mahasannidhanam of Kauai's Hindu Monastery.
The article in the Indo-American News from which the above is excerpted can be viewed here.