Devotion and doubt: race, religion, and postmodern kirtan

After a long day of sessions, feeling with clients/students through the morass of feelings and confusions that seem to be the near-universal experience of being human around here, I light a dry leaf of white sage, shake off the fire, and walk slowly around the practice room both clearing the air and honoring the images and statues that live there. I love these images, and each one reminds me of an aspect of reality, of spirit, of nature, of my work in the world, the questions that burn in my heart, and the healing I hope to offer to the people who come to sit with me.

I wave the glowing, smoking leaf in front of each object in a casual approximation of an ārtī gesture, the waving of lamps in front of deities that often happens at the end of a Hindu pūja. For some I softly mouth a mantra associated with this deity. First, the large Quan Yin that dominates the altar, “Namo Quan Shr Yin Pusa”, a Chinese version of her name. Then the smaller Buddha and Ganesha sitting side by side, “Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Samma-sambuddhasa”, I honor the Blessed One, Perfected and Fully Awakened, “Oṃ Gaṃ Ganapataye Namaha”, may all obstruction be moved through.

I move counterclockwise through the room to Green Tara, a Nepalese thangka gifted from a dear friend, “Om Tare Tuttare Ture Svaha”, another Quan Yin painting, and offer a waft of fragrant smoke in front of a small photo of the inscrutable Neem Karoli Baba in his plaid blanket, teacher of Ram Dass, Krishna Das, and many others, whose ashram we visited in Kainchi in the Himalayan foothills. Maharaji, as he was called, is largely responsible for the lineage of kirtan I practice, and my heart swells with an indefinable joy when I stop for a moment and take in his image.

If the leaf is still burning, I walk out into the living room and just keep going, image by image: Prajñāpāramitā, the Mother of all the Buddhas, “Gate Gate Paragate Parasaṃgate Bodhi Svaha”; a bunch of ancestor pictures, grandparents and others, “Thank you. May you all be well.”; an unidentified dancing dakini thangka; a painting of our nephew, “Hi, Z. May you be well.”; and then a large, brightly colored painting of young Kṛṣṇa lounging under a full moon with some cows, “Hare Kṛṣṇa!” or “Jai Govinda!” or the full mahamantra if I feel like it. Over the piano is another Buddha touching the earth, a Ganesha painted by a student, and a couple of new gifts: Hanuman haloed in gold, and one dark blue Parama-Śiva, silent and cosmically still. This circumambulation of the rooms is often a moment of sweet exhale, as I let go of the day, and marks the continuity of my core intent — to live a life of grace and devotion, orienting again and again toward truth and liberation.

But what AM I doing with all these images?

This is a rambling essay that waves some heat in front of a diverse collection of topics, touching at least two major religions, and glancing in the direction of a couple others. I don’t know where it’s headed, or the conclusion yet. Centrally, I want to know something about kirtan, the uplifting and delightful practice of singing names of the divine in Sanskrit (mostly), which I lead every month at a heartfelt gathering at my yoga studio. Maybe I want to know why I do it, or if I should stop, or what it is that’s haunting me about it. Much of this post is personal, as I try to lay out my own positionality in some detail. I think this is important as a starting place because in a way, the whole conversation is about position. Who is speaking, and what kind of power do they hold? Along the way, I’ll bring up some doctrinal issues and some political ones. The end of the post will go more specifically into hypotheses around colonialism, appropriation, and power.

Intro: How do I look in this bindi?

I’ve been increasingly uncomfortable with aspects of the very hybrid, very American, spiritual practice I am devoted to, and which I teach, especially around race, class, oppression, and “our” (a broad mix of mostly, but not entirely, white middle-class people who do some things we call “yoga”, “kirtan”, “Buddhism”, “tantra”, or “dharma”, but generally NOT, notice, “Hinduism”) identity as sincere practitioners of traditions abstracted from their South Asian origins. Other folks are uncomfortable too, of course, evidenced in painfully relevant projects like #whitepeopledoingyoga, articles like this one in Elephant Journal, and a kirtan practitioner friend posting this article on hipsters wearing Native American headdresses having sussed that it implied something awkward for our salwar kameez and bindi-wearing Indophile white kirtan community.

That much of western yoga is orientalist is no news. Many western yogis fetishize Indian accoutrements with the same naïveté my Zen community once did for premodern Japanese stuff: matcha, tatami, tabi, shoji. In yoga it’s malas, bindis, henna tattoos, the AUM symbol, and of course the ubiquitous images of mainstream Hindu deities that everyone has seen a million of, at least around here: Shiva on his tiger skin, Kali with her garland of skulls, Krishna and Radha under a shawl in the rain, elephant-headed Ganesha with his broken tusk and taste for sweets, Hanuman carrying the mountain. We use these images for decoration, for inspiration, and to help some of us feel spiritual in a way that Jesus, Mary, and Moses long ago ceased to do. And many of us sincerely LOVE them. But orientalism, like its power-blind twin colonialism, also at play here, always casts the shadow of power and inequity. Are these sacred images being offered for our consumption? Yes and no, historically. Who are we to use them as we do, and do the wishes of members (and which ones) of their source cultures matter to us?

Put plainly: what’s with all the unexamined cultural appropriation?

To explore this means looking at history, religions, race and caste, class and geopolitics. I’m going to barely scratch the surface. Here’s a short list of vexing issues, in no specific order:

1. Lots of folks I know venerate Hindu deities, repeat their mantras, and find significant succor and insight through relating to the psychological implications of the deities’ stories, but do not convert or think of themselves as Hindu. This “second order religiosity” (Mark Singleton’s phrase, discussed well by Matthew Remski), permeates western yoga, and the cognitive dissonance it speaks to is especially prevalent, I’m feeling, in kirtan. This is what I’ll focus most on in this post, touching on orientalism, fetishization, colonialism, racism, and cultural appropriation.

I’m not going to talk much about the (mis)use of Indian iconography in fad or fashionable ways by western yogis. That’s obviously orientalist (here’s a solid overview of orientalism by its founding sage, Edward Said), and worth loud critique. The racism and ignorance endemic in the community that has led to the shallow appropriation of Hindu iconography by people who have no substantial relationship to South Asian religious practice or culture is due for some serious schooling. Thank you SAAPYA, #WhitePeopleDoingYoga artist Chirag Bhakta, and many others for this valuable work. I’m going to focus on the implications of a post-colonial critique for serious, sincere western practitioners who use spiritual technologies from Indian religions as their primary practice and existential orientation. I’m not asserting that sincere practice like this is not appropriation just because it’s sincere, but I will propose that something new is being created which, while it clearly has a shadow, also can’t be reduced to its shadow.

2. Yoga and yogic practices are increasingly being politicized by some factions of the Hindu right, including groups that view yoga as exclusively a Hindu cultural property and a tool for the promulgation of Hinduism within India. Most American yogis that I know are quite ignorant about Indian politics around yoga, and how it is being used by groups with anti-Muslim, Sikh, Christian, and Buddhist agendas. This excellent and provocative post on Jadaliyya discusses these issues, touching on caste domination of yoga, and the exclusion of Dalit and Adivasi voices in yoga. How do Indian yoga, class, and caste politics affect what we do as devout but often uneducated western practitioners?

In addition, in America, a call for yoga to be seen as a Hindu cultural property has been central to the mission of the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), which according to the Coalition Against Genocide “has existential links to extremist and violent Hindutva supremacist organizations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).” (via Jadaliyya post) Do well-meaning western calls for respecting the Hindu-ness and Indian-ness of yoga unintentionally support the position of the fundamentalist Hindutva movement, which many progressive westerners largely do not want to support? (Thank you, Matthew Remski, for this observation. I’ll link to your writing on it when it appears.) Hindutva pressure is also behind Penguin India recalling and pulping all copies of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative Historyaccused of heresy. Her book is radical partly for its focus on marginalized voices in Hinduism: women, animals, and lower caste and indigenous people.

The rise of the Hindu nationalist right wing in India, marked in bold this month by the game-changing landslide  election of Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to national power, changes subtly the landscape for American yogis. Modi, who was a member of the historically fascist- and Nazi-praising RSS and who was hugely supported by them in this election, is accused of encouraging the anti-Muslim riots and massacre in 2002, though he denies this and was never charged. At the very least, he’s the leader of a pro-business and growth movement that is upending the power balance in India, with the identity “Hindu” a core ideology. The BJP is known for pushing to teach yoga in Indian schools, seemingly as a means to indoctrinate Hinduism, and it’s being resisted by Muslims and other marginalized communities. This has challenging implications for causes that many progressive western yogis support, like the recent court case in Encinitas around “secular” yoga asana being taught in American schools. And way more importantly than that, it’s chilling for South Asian religious tolerance, and heavily underreported here.

3. And more broadly, and probably more to the point for progressive western practitioners of yoga and kirtan: as investigation of yoga’s historical roots grows, a subtle (and I would say necessary) destabilization seems to be spreading through the community, as its received myths get one by one uprooted, meaning historically contextualized. Mark Singleton’s book, The Yoga Body, revealed the painfully recent provenance of most of the physical practice of yoga as done in the west, contradicting a couple generations of teachers who assumed that because “yoga” is 3000 years old that that meant asanas. David Gordon White is about to release a book tracing the history of Patañjali’s Yoga Sutra, proposing that that venerable text is not-quite-as-venerable-as-we-thought. (My review of that book here…) And the notorious scourge who seems to hate yoga (though I hear he doesn’t), William Broad of the NY Times, reminded us that yogis get injured A LOT, in The Science of Yoga.

Not a few yoga teachers and students I know went to the beautiful and strange exhibition of images of “yoga” that travelled from the Freer-Sackler to the SF Asian Art Museum and came out saying, “What, um, are we doing?” And yoga and Ayurveda teacher Matthew Remski has been writing a series of essays called What Are We Actually Doing In Asana, focusing on injury, alignment, and layers of cognitive dissonance in modern yoga practice.
Given all this (and it’s a lot — which I’ll never be able to get to in enough depth), in some ways this post could be called, inspired by Matthew’s smart, inquisitive series: What are we actually doing in kirtan?

Part 1: An ex-Catholic Mestizo Convert Buddhist chanting to Hanuman. Whaaaat??

When I was practicing Zen, every once in a while someone would ask the senior students what came to seem like an inevitable, and strangely awkward, question: “So, are you Buddhist?” And the answer I grew used to hearing, and a few times tried to give, was, “Of course not.” Someone even said once, “I haven’t seen any ‘Buddhists’ (it was clear that the word was spoken in sarcasm quotes) around here in ages!” The obvious-to-us implication was that identifying — taking on the tribal, institutional, and psychological label “Buddhist” — was in direct opposition to the non-identification with anything that seemed to be the heart of Zen realization.

This injunction, to eschew the label, and by extension the “religion”, persists in my current Theravāda sangha. Many times at the end of retreat, amid encouragements to keep one’s passion for practice and insights to oneself rather than evangelizing one’s family and friends, my teachers have said, “Be a Buddha, not a Buddhist.”

The rationale for this seems to be that one can use the meditation and inquiry practices to great benefit without taking on the institutions of Buddhism as a religion. Clearly this is possible, at least to some degree, as thousands of westerners on the run from organized religion have taken up Buddhist practice as a malleable, humanistic psychology that seems to offer the best of religion: solace, life purpose, community, and practical methods to deal with pain; without the worst: dogma, sectarianism, external authority, violence, abuse. But I am coming to feel that this answer bypasses deep issues of privilege and colonialism. When I finally started saying that I was Buddhist, I told people the truth: that I was in love with this tradition so much that it felt wrong not to call them my home team.

I had clearly converted.

And more and more I see western practitioners — at least in the Theravāda and Tibetan streams — clearly identifying as Buddhist. I take refuge, which is the traditional marker of Buddhist identity, with all my heart. I chant the prayers, I’ve worn the robes, I donate to the centers, and feel some amount of kinship with Buddhists of most Asian cultures: Thai and Burmese most centrally, but also Sri Lankan, Lao, Vietnamese, Indian, Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, etc. When I step into a Buddhist temple anywhere I feel somehow at home. Whether I deserve to is a matter to ask the communities that built those temples, but I do.

Is the rejection of religious Buddhism by dedicated western practitioners through a distaste for the very ego-stabilizing act of identification unintentionally solidifying a split between western lay practitioners and immigrant communities from Buddhist countries? There are relatively few Asian-American Buddhists at the centers I’ve practiced at: Zen and Vipassanā centers mostly. The Tibetan centers here, in an area with a large Tibetan refugee population, are more mixed, but still there’s imbalance. The Theravada monasteries I’ve practiced at, like Wat Metta in San Diego, are the most integrated I’ve seen, and it’s an interesting integration: all western monks and a western teacher, but the center is almost completely supported by Southeast Asian immigrant communities.

The politics of this have been well-explored by scholars like Charles Prebish, in Faces of Buddhism in America with Kenneth Tanaka, and Luminous Passage. And there’s more to explore. I’ve never heard any immigrant Buddhist say that the act of being Buddhist is in any way at odds with realization of the core truth of anattā, or not-self, which seems to be the doctrinal justification for eschewing identification. Exactly the opposite, in fact. And as a practitioner who has benefitted greatly from conversion, I would assert that the very stabilizing act of taking refuge establishes the foundation of community support and faith that is necessary for the ego to tolerate the extremely destabilizing experience that can come when the solid self is actually seen for the insubstantiality it is.

But where in American Buddhism there are clearly convert and immigrant communities of Buddhists, and they have some relationship, even if fraught with misunderstanding and cultural distance, the split between Hindus and western yoga practitioners is even greater. I know exactly ZERO western yoga practitioners who clearly identify as Hindu converts. I know “yogis”, “tantrikas”, “bhaktas”, “devadasis”, “sannyasins”, and even some “Shaivites”, but I’ve never heard the word “Hindu” spoken in self-reference by a white person. And of course race is one of the elephants in the room here, along with class and the various privileges of the global north. By the too-generic “western yogi” I thus mean the largely white, middle- and bohemian class, liberal/progressive, educated crowd that fills my yoga classes and community. There’s been wonderful activism lately around race, gender, queerness, and body size in yoga, like through Be Scofield’s Decolonizing Yoga, but less about religion.

And anyway, what would western yogis even be converting to?

As we learn more as a community about the historical roots of yoga, it’s clearer than ever that most of what we call “yoga” in America nowadays has been so far abstracted from its ancient Indian roots that there’s very little left of what could be called Classical Yoga (as in Patañjali’s concentration-oriented meditative practice), Tantra (as in a ritual, mantra, and guru oriented practice of inquiry into the nature of consciousness), or Hatha Yoga (purifications and sublimation of sexual energy leading to the arousal and channeling of kundalini), perhaps its 3 most prominent premodern roots. There’s traces, for sure, but they often feel as faint as the trace of Pythagoras’s Greek modes in the one-minor-chord funk jam that’s playing on the sound system at the cafe I’m writing at. The ancient past is further away than we think, not closer.

And of course, none of those streams in their original incarnations were “Hindu” either, since the term began as a British colonial umbrella (based on a Persian word), referring without distinction to everything around and south of the Indus river, namely the entire subcontinent, with its hundreds of distinct deities, practices, philosophies, and languages. [A scholar friend, Chris Wallis, corrects me (and the histories I’ve read), saying that it was used by South Asians in self reference by the 15th century, from a seeming Persian origin. But it still doesn’t much precede the 15th century.] This good overview of Hindu philosophy begins by trying to define “Hindu”, whether around caste, core doctrines, or race and culture, and fails. What is “Hindu”, then, and what constitutes appropriation of it? Does veneration of the deities associated with a religion constitute practice of that religion? Does veneration and respect constitute conversion? And does honest, heartfelt respect inoculate the practitioner from being a colonizer?

Part 2: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare

When a great wave of yoga came to the west in the 60’s, it partly came through the person of Ram Dass, who had connected in India with a young, brilliant Californian, Bhagavan Das, and through him to Neem Karoli Baba (Maharaji). Ram Dass wrote Be Here Now with Maharaji holding pride of place in his heart. Maharaji taught his eager American students to chant. They sang the prayers to deities that filled the Indian spiritual imagination, learning to love Krishna and Radha, Shiva, Durga, and Kali, and especially Rama, Sita, and Hanuman, who Maharaji loved. And they learned Tulsidas’s stunning 40 verse hymn, the Hanuman Chalisa, which Maharaji venerated. It starts like this:

Sriguru carana saroja raja nija manu mukuru sudhari…

Taking the dust of my Guru’s lotus feet to polish the mirror of my heart, I sing the pure fame of the best of Raghus, which bestows the four fruits.

I don’t know anything, so I remember you, Son of the Wind. Grant me strength, intelligence & wisdom, remove my impurities & sorrows.

Following Krishna Das’s lead, having learned to love this hymn, I’ve been doing it every month at the kirtan I lead for years now. The sense of surrender, devotion, and faith this prayer invokes often moves me to tears. When after invoking Hanuman’s stories, qualities, and promising great results…

You are the guardian at Ram’s door, no one enters without your permission. Those who take refuge in you find all happiness, those who you protect know no fear.

You alone can withstand your own splendor, the three worlds tremble at your roar. Ghosts and goblins cannot come near, Great Hero, when your name is spoken.

the prayer thunders toward its great conclusion…

Singing your praise, one finds Ram, & the sorrows of aeons are destroyed. At death one goes to Ram’s own abode, born there as God’s devotee.

Why worship any other deities? From Hanuman you’ll get all happiness. Affliction ceases & all pain is removed for those who remember the mighty hero, Hanuman.

Victory, Victory, Victory Lord Hanuman!  Bestow your grace on me, as my Guru! Whoever recites this 100 times is released from bondage & gains bliss.

Jai Jai Jai Hanumana gosai!…” We throw our hands and voices in the air. The room seems to burst with joy. “Pavanatanaya sankata harana…”

Son of the Wind, destroyer of sorrow, embodiment of blessings!
With Ram, Lakshman and Sita, LIVE IN MY HEART, King of Gods!

I take refuge at the feet of Sita’s beloved, Ram.

Embodiment of happiness, Son of the Wind, you remove all sorrow by the root.

And we pour into a closing “Sri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram“.

I love this practice. Even writing about Hanuman makes my heart swell. So, what’s the problem? Is it that refuge in the Buddha and refuge in Ram are not really the same thing at all? Is it that I’m not Hindu? Not Indian? Not Vaiṣṇava? Is there a problem?

These hippies and their descendants, I and some of my community among them, inherited a practice called “kirtan” — a spiritual technology — consisting of images, names, stories, concepts, and a way to embed them in our consciousness through repetition: mantra, chant, veneration, reflection. We were colonized, evangelized. But “we” were and are also in a position of first-world power, and so are clearly the colonizers, in many ways. That’s how power and privilege function, and they do so even through the most well-meaning intentions. White people began to define what yoga and kirtan are, certainly for the white world, and white people’s practice began to determine the terms and limits of the conversation. Yoga and kirtan changed in response to the particular neuroses of the westerners who practiced them. Yoga asana got more strength, psychology, and mindfulness oriented than it had been in India, and kirtan got more like a rock concert. Now we have flashy pop hybrid kirtan bands, kirtronica, and Bhakti Fest. A far cry from the 3 old guys I sat with in the doorway of a tiny outdoor shrine at Maharaji’s ashram in Kainchi as they sang the Krishna mahamantra through endless snaky melodies back and forth, singing in shifts to make sure it kept going 24/7.

This spiritual technology clearly works, by which I mean “conditions positive changes in the practitioner and community of practitioners”, even for imprecise and minimally dedicated (compared to those guys) western practitioners. Of course here I have to define “positive”. I’ll go with “increasing kindness toward self and other, reduced suffering through the cultivation of equanimity…” and already it’s a problem. And we haven’t even gotten to trying to define moksha (liberation) or nirvana! These are all contested definitions, contested sites of identity and conquest. And coming from me, they definitely smell of Convert Buddhism. Even if I was to say that “works” means “deepens faith in Rama/Vishnu as the ultimate deity and refuge”, would that mean that someone who feels that (and I know many) has become Hindu? Has appropriated not just an image, a story, a song, but a life orientation?

Part 3: How not to colonize?

In Miyuki Baker’s smart essay, Yoga and Colonization, which has excellent links to resources and a good summary of the issues, she sums up what to do to try not to be a colonizer, and it comes down to respect. “Acknowledge the shit out of it.” Education in how not to unintentionally colonize is also necessary, and a vital part of sincere spiritual practice. This great presentation by Kim Crosby on Examining Power and Privilege in Yoga hits all the main bases in a solid way with a ton of links and resources. This kind of anti-oppression work is a good start, and I’m grateful for it. As a committed practitioner and teacher of yoga, Buddhism, kirtan, and South Asian philosophy both Hindu and Buddhist, writing for other practitioners like myself, here’s my own draft list of suggestions (many gleaned from other writers on this topic, and built on a foundation structure borrowed from the Bhagavad Gītā) for practices students of these traditions might take on:

1. Education without end. Jñana Yoga. Our responsibility as students of a vast tradition is to learn as much as we can about it, and not just from teachers of our own culture. Sing kirtan with South Asian Hindus, meditate with Asian Buddhists of your preferred tradition, read the texts of your tradition in the best translations you can find. Western teachers are often well-meaning but culturally biased. Study your own positionality. Do anti-oppression, anti-racism, decolonization study. Take education seriously, and be humble. Don’t claim mastery.

2. Veneration without irony. Bhakti Yoga. If you want to use Hindu or Buddhist deities in your practice, pray to them sincerely, be humble, and question their presence on your t-shirt, yoga bag, and computer desktop. If you do use them as imagery, be aware that they’re sacred, and ask yourself the hard questions. Err on the side of respect.

(Full positionality disclosure: I have used these images in my promo for teaching because veneration of them has been core to my practice and faith. That doesn’t make it necessarily ok, of course, and I go back and forth about using them. It’s an open question for me, and part of this investigation.)

3. Practice without pretense. Raja Yoga. Do the practices that serve well-being most for you. Meditate. Breathe and move with energy and intention. Clarify your intention, train in focus and inquiry. Don’t teach practices you haven’t done yourself for several years first. Cultivate a strong, consistent discipline. As focus becomes stronger, shine the light of awareness on ever subtler habits of mind. Habits that discriminate, fear, separate, judge, assume, generalize, ignore. See harmful ideologies in yourself. See them in your culture. Be vocal. But no matter how vocal you become, don’t abandon your core practice.

4. Action without fixation. Karma Yoga. Join those whose activism inspires you. Find ways to be visible and engaged in your community. But if you find that a single issue is obsessing you, or a specific outcome haunting you with its necessity, step back. Study the big picture. Then a bigger one. Sometimes go cosmic and existential, sometimes microscopic and imminent. Act ethically as best you can. Realize that nobody can force the future. Let go of success and failure, but keep working for justice. Do whatever you need to be happy during the process. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

In sum: Four Yogas Against Oppression

Education without end.
Veneration without irony.
Practice without pretense.
Action without fixation.

Afterword: Religion, identity, culture, names: all are dualistic. God is not… but saying so is. 

Often at kirtan I do Buddhist chants as well as Hindu. One night a few months ago, we had sung a sweet, deep Shiva chant, and I had told a story about Shiva as Pure Consciousness, describing images and ideas from the Śaiva Tantra tradition. It made sense (to me, and this is a syncretic move already, though one with roots in early Tantra) to move into talking about śūnyatā, Emptiness — the quality of absolute non-fixity that everything conditioned manifests. That led to the Heart Sūtra, the great Mahāyāna Buddhist invocation of the impossibility of fixating any aspect of reality, including Buddhism itself.

I suggested we chant the mantra to the Goddess of Perfect Wisdom that closes the text. Gate Gate Paragate Parasaṃgate Bodhi Svaha. “Gone, Gone, Gone Beyond. Completely Beyond. Awake. So it is.” We sang the mantra around and around, in a hypnotic, low melody. The night deepened. I didn’t know how to stop. I let it go and go until it seemed to wind down on its own, and after the last slow round, I felt a vast silence filling the room. I closed my eyes and sat. The room sat, like a kindergarten playground at dinnertime, all the chaos gone home, swings hanging still and empty in the cool air.

We still had a half hour left of kirtan. It was time to chant. But to… whom? To a deity? None came to mind. None existed. Eventually I began to speak, about open space, about the mind, about awareness. I dragged myself back into the relative world of self and other. And eventually, managed to find my way back to Hanuman, I’m not sure through what pathway. Maybe as just an image of the power of devotion itself, rather than the “monkey god”. And we sang the Chalisa. It was simple and sober. “I know nothing, so I remember you, Son of the Wind.”

If wind, as is taught in some parts of the tradition, is associated with the Mind, I could make the equation that devotion is the child of the mind. If the activity of the mind (let’s say that here we mean manas, the thinking and naming aspect of inner experience) by its nature creates the dual — subject and object, self and other, supplicant and deity — then devotion could be its most refined expression. I know nothing, so I remember you. This dualism has proved deeply valuable to me in moments of deep challenge in practice, when I really needed something to cling to. But when I’m orienting toward the Buddhist path — the 4 Noble Truths of suffering, its cause, its end, and the path that leads there — the deities are gone. Gone. Gone way beyond.

The great Advaita (non-dual) teacher Sri H.W.L. Poonja (Papaji) was a Kṛṣṇa devotee his whole life, till he met Sri Ramana Maharshi. Poonja described the meeting thus:

He asked me, “Why didn’t you come for so many days?” I was very proud. I said, “I have been playing with my God.” “Very good, very well.” He said. “You have been playing with God?” “Yes, I was. I have always been.” “Do you see him now? Do you see him now?” “Not now,” I said. “Not now. When I have vision I see him, sometimes in the night also. When I have vision I see him, not always. That’s why I want to see him always.”

Then he said, “God does not appear and disappear.”

For the first time I heard this: “God is Reality itself. God doesn’t disappear. He is appearance itself. So what appears and disappears is only mental, is only imagination.” I didn’t like this philosophy that I was hearing. “Krishna appeared and disappeared. And the seer is still here, he who has seen Krishna is still here. Find out who the seer is.”

This one instruction oriented Poonja away from dualistic worship and craving for visions to the extraordinary non-dual path he came to embody and teach.

Here and now find out who you are. This is the ultimate Reality, this is the ultimate teaching. I don’t think any other teaching can surpass this teaching. Know your Self and then know the rest, if it is needed. This false appearance will disappear in the recognition of your own Self. This false appearance will not show up again when the Real is revealed to you. That has no form and no name; That has no geographical location anywhere, neither inside nor outside. This is Eternal rest. Each of you is already in This. The only impediment is your preoccupation with something else, with something unreal. That is the only hindrance. Otherwise this freedom, this wisdom, this beauty, this love is always inviting you. You only have to turn your attention within your own Self and you see that you have always been free. This is your own nature.

Poonja letting go of Krishna as an idea of that which is outside arose from deep within his faith and concentrated heart-mind. In American yogis I see a delight in non-dual teachings like this that seem to validate the abandoning of any fixated view or religious orientation, but a very different foundation: skepticism, aversion to structure, aversion to doctrine and ideas of separate divinity. I feel like coming to non-dual teachings from skepticism rather than from faith is more conducive to spiritual bypass and dissociation than integration and engagement, so I try to teach this kind of view — Emptiness, for instance — from a solid grounding in basic ethics, mindfulness, and devotion. But from the view of Emptiness [btw, I capitalize words when they’re a direct translation of a Sanskrit or Pali technical term so as to distinguish them from misleading English meanings] and the non-dual, all names of the divine are relative cultural creations.

Ultimately, the deities have “no form and no name”. Borders, tribes, identities, communities… all are Empty. But we can’t really base our actions on the Ultimate. (That’s the anti-affirmative action view: that denying the reality of racism is the path to the end of racism. Wrong.) Action is always Relative, always relational, always right here. With these exact people, and those. These stories, and those. These changing needs, this changing earth.
South Asian religion came west, shed much, retained some good, and is thriving here, in the hearts and bodies of convert yogis. It’s not Hinduism, but it’s not completely not, either. It’s something new, and I don’t have a good name for it. Come join me this Sunday for “kirtan”. We’ll sing to Rama and Sita, and the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. I’ll talk about doubt, faith, and ask us what we’re doing. We’ll end with the Chalisa, as we always do.

One who reads this Hanuman Chalisa gains success, as Gauri’s Lord (Shiva) is witness. Says Tulsi Das, who always remains Hari’s servant,  “Lord, make your home in my heart.”

24 thoughts on “Devotion and doubt: race, religion, and postmodern kirtan”

  1. Thank you Sean. I’m a little a late to this conversation, but I suppose we find things when we are ready. I’ve been having a lot similar uncomfortable thoughts about my own beloved but embarrassingly hybrid yoga and meditation practice. It’s very helpful to have these issues so clearly articulated and with so many references links. Lots to study and then digest!

  2. Pingback: . sean feit . dharma, yoga, art . » “Your faith was strong but you needed proof”: The Kalama Sutta vs. neoliberal Buddhism

  3. Pingback: . sean feit . dharma, yoga, art . » I have seen the yogi and he is us: Patañjali and the consolations of ambiguity

  4. I agree with several things he says but also I must say that over-political correctness and self-criticism, must be understood for what it is as well and can be self-weakening in a bad way. We are also to be commended for our appropriation ( which I think he acknowledges) and perhaps we have also been colonized as well. Good for “them”. “Our Western culture is quite obviously ethnocentric but no more ethnocentric than any other, even if it’s ethnocentrism has been more cruelly effective on account of it’s power. There is no denying it’s cruelty ( there’s no denying cruelty in India, either!). Unlike many cultures, which have always been unashamedly ethnocentric, we in the West have always been simultaneously ourselves and our own enemy. We are at once his Majesty and the opponents of his Majesty. We condemn what we are, or what we believe ourselves to be, with an ardor that seldom amounts to very much, but at least we try. What is happening here is yet another example of the passion for self-criticism which exists strongly among persons infuenced by Judeo-Christian civilization.” edited quote by Rene Girard.

    1. Please note my superfluous statement “there’s no denying cruelty in India either!, this was my own interjection in the middle of the Girard quote that was improperly interjected. It should have been placed elsewhere, but I don’t see a how to to edit here once I have submitted.

    2. Michael, I never know what is really meant by the pejorative “political correctness”. Is there something specific in my narrative that you find telling of a misguided self-criticism?
      The Girard quote performs a relativism that I find mostly unhelpful here, though he tempers it with this line, in which lies the entire conversation about appropriation: “it’s [sic] ethnocentrism has been more cruelly effective on account of it’s power.” Exactly. It’s not ethnocentrism I’m discussing here (and I didn’t use the word), but the ethics of power in a complex global social-religious relationship.

  5. Universalists, which is what I think most of the whites/bohemian-types are, are taking at face value the Univeralism some Hindus/Buddhists offer; they’ve already “converted” and are enjoying the Universal’s bounty, to the Regionalist’s chagrin. It is Universalism that is addressing ableism, privileged etc as negative values, not Hinduism or yoga (in general). Many Hindus and I’m sure some yogis too find the gender issues too perverse to even discuss, yet Univeralist values are presented as if these are concerns for white people only. The article covered a lot of ground but it think missed mention of the contentious place conversion has in India, where it is associated with community identity while in the US it is more an individual pursuit. Also, Modi’s party didn’t win because it is Hindu nationalist, but because the Congress party that has been in charge for decades is corrupt and ineffectual. I get the impression the BJP is just the same, but that’s the change we can believe in. It’s a rare article on social ills and yoga that discuses actual practices- thank you!

  6. Hi Sean (and Kevin), Thank you for raising these very important questions. I admire the detail, context and thoughtfulness you bring to them. In my own scholarship as a professor of religious studies, i’ve been tracking some of what i see as the emergence of a new development stage in buddhism in the west, which i argue has characteristics more associated with the postmodern than the modern (I’d include your post as an example of this): self-reflexivity around the historicity of practices, postcolonial awareness, ect. A couple of things I’d like to add though is that the postmodern demands an interrogation of how the traditional/modern are set in binary opposition. what i see here and in the comments by Kevin (Hi Kevin!) is moving from a critique of the modern’s demonization of the traditional to a fetishization of the traditional (as the privileged context) This is the standard move in dismissing de-institutionalzied spirituality (Philip Rieff and Chris Lasch did it in relationship to the 1960s culture-culture) An interesting article on the status of the traditional in Western Buddhism is Natalie Quli’s Western Self, Asian Other So my only caution is to hold both the traditional and modern with equal interrogation Also, well i agree with you that too many of us “moderns” easily dismiss tradition (I appreciate your suggestions around form/emptiness) many of the reasons for that were and continue to be necessary-for example, the status of nuns in Theravada. A second point revolves around the theme of religious dynamism and change. Any glance at the history of religion shows that to be a constant of religion and traditions themselves are amalgamations of preceding and existing religions. Obviously, this doesn’t bypass the colonial critiques, but it does need more serious consideration than is often given (in which the modern is somehow framed as the sole location of change, borrowing and “stealing”) I think the use of the term “invention” here is particularly problematic-unless at least ” ” to show some awareness of the value judgements within it. At any rate, these are just some points to consider. Thanks for a wonderful post!

    1. Thank you Ann Gleig for your illuminating comments, and for sharing the article by Natalie Quli, which I just finished reading. It’s a profoundly important piece that thanks to you I’ll be sharing with many practitioner friends. I only wish it could become more widely known (Tricycle magazine, for starters, ought to publish it “in atonement”). Thank you again for adding even more depth to Sean’s already remarkable post.

      1. And I forgot: thank you Sean for your kind words and wise perspective. I’m additionally grateful to you for the referral to Analayo’s approach to the Brahmavihara’s, which is not only very timely for my personal practice (I’ve struggled with the phrase-based approach for years) but in leading me to seek out the interview with him where he talks about this has not only inspired me to spend more time on the cushion but also made it very clear to me that I want to spend a lengthy stint with all three of his books. Analayo is exactly the model for a practitioner-scholar that I might aspire to were I graced with an additional 50 or so IQ points and a great deal more discipline. Thank you again for your writing and the inspiration of your example.

        1. Kevin, You’re so welcome. Bows of metta and mudita for your renewed practice. If you write at all about Analayo’s work as you spend time with it, I’d love to read your thoughts. Warmest, s.
          (And… I don’t know how IQ works, but I know that discipline is a byproduct of inspiration. So since you sound inspired… who knows what will come of it!)

      2. Thanks. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. It really deserves more consideration as it offers a way out of the traditional/modern binary that is too easy to fall into over these complex issues.

    2. Hi Ann, thank you so much for your thoughtful reading & response. Re: the postmodern interrogation of both modern and “traditional”, one of the things that I think is most interesting in the recent scholarship on yoga history (via Singleton and others, including D.G. White’s book on the Yoga Sutra, which I’m reading now & will write about soon) is the historicization of the modern period in yoga’s transmission to the west. Understanding how much of our interpretation of yoga came from Emerson, Vivekananda, Madame Blavatsky, Aurobindo, and how they were performing specific politics, destabilizes naïve dogma in western yoga — which in my non-scholarly community is endemic. The same thing is happening in Theravada, and the history that someone will eventually write on the revival of the Bhikkhuni lineage is a case in point. The relationship of western feminists to the Thai Forest tradition, Burmese lay-centric vipassana, Ambedkar’s Buddhists in India, the Tibetan diaspora, Mahayana nuns lineages in Taiwan and Korea, and a very western ethos of equal access under the law is not just one of appropriation but of a fruitful (my preference, obviously) meeting, maybe even a skillful means (upaya).
      So, yes, appropriation too easily suggests a one-sided power structure, where deeper investigation reveals influence moving both ways. The yoga we appropriated was already a product of a long relationship between, for instance, German Idealism, American Spiritualism, and Hindu Nationalism (learning from White’s new book). We are appropriating Blavatsky as much as Patanjali. Or at least Patanjali through Blavatsky, Müller, Viv, etc. Same with asana, we’ve learned from Singleton: we get to Svatmarama and Patanjali via Krishnamacharya, which means also through the YMCA and Victorian contortion.
      Thanks again. Your feedback is helpful.

      1. Thanks, Sean. Yes, I know and have worked with Mark and really appreciate the paths he and Elizabeth de Michelis have opened up in modern yoga. I’m also really loving the bridging of academic and practitioner worlds that is also opening up. Susanne Mrozik, an excellent Buddhist scholar, is working on the revival of the Bhikkhuni lineage, so you can look forward to some top notch scholarship soon! Cheers, Ann

        1. I have nothing to add to this discussion aside from a resounding thank you for writing this article Sean, and another thank you to Kevin and Ann for their contributions (I am currently moving onto the blog post that you linked to, Ann). I just shared this with a friend and mentioned that I got a lot of value from reading the comments, which is something that I never thought I would say about something posted on the Internet!
          I have been practicing Hatha yoga (by my instructor’s description), for a year now and I began to feel a bit unsettled as I began to notice a lot of things that were mentioned in this article. I am so glad to have found this post, even if I am really quite late to the party! Looking forward to reading more.

  7. formally unschooled as i am in doctrine and principle, (Buddhist, Vedic or otherwise). I find your writing humble, authentic, sometimes even luminous. I appreciate the heartfelt exploration, and for me an opportunity to learn from your personal and well-studied perspective. Thanks and namaste.

  8. Thank you for yet another wonderful post that will have me questioning cherished assumptions and practices and following up on links for quite some time.
    Professor Robert Sharf (in “Losing Our Religion, Tricycle 2007) has a comment that directly relates to a lot of what you’re pondering here:
    “Q. But to get back to your point, what gets lost when primacy is given to individual spiritual experience?
    A. The sangha gets lost! The community gets lost. Buddhism has what it calls its Three Treasures: the Buddha, the Dharma, or his teaching, and the Sangha, or the religious community. Throughout history, each of these has been interpreted in various ways, but the idea that one of them might not be that important—it would never fly. But if you view Buddhism as a matter of inner experience, you downplay its corporate dimension, those traditional resources that serve to deepen and extend the bonds of community and tradition.
    Today, you often hear people describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” What they mean, I think, is that they care deeply about their inner spiritual and psychological lives, but they are not particularly interested in an affiliation with a religious tradition or institution. Buddhist modernism provides a perspective that not only facilitates this sort of appropriation of Buddhism but makes it desirable.

    I think this deep suspicion of religious institutions is understandable but also misguided. The organized rule-bound and tradition-bound institution of the sangha provides a framework that, at least ideally, helps to efface egocentrism. The sangha literally embodies the Buddhist tradition; it transcends the self-concerns of any individual, especially the concerns that arise from placing our inner life at the center of the universe. So we must ask whether Buddhism, when practiced without the ties of community and tradition, instead of mitigating our tendency toward narcissism, actually feeds it.
    Historically, the authority of Buddhist teachers was conferred and mediated by the institution of the sangha, specifically the ordained community, which worked on a more or less strict system of seniority. Of course, individuals often specialized in a particular domain—scriptural exegesis, liturgical practice, meditation, and so forth—and some would be recognized for their particular areas of mastery. But the general idea was that before you could claim to represent the dharma, you had to thoroughly imbibe and participate in the life of the institution to which the dharma had been entrusted. But if institutions don’t matter, if basic knowledge and understanding of scripture don’t matter, and if Buddhism is reduced to an inner experience, however this might be construed, then authority becomes a matter of personal charisma. Lacking the support and the checks and balances that are part of a strong community life, the authority and prominence of any particular teacher, whether by choice or necessity, is based largely on his or her skill as an entrepreneur. In short, teachers are forced to market, however tacitly, their own enlightenment. And this is precisely the situation with so many teachers in America. Living as we do in a market economy, I think this sort of entrepreneurial model demands scrutiny, at the very least.”
    I think that speaks to many of the problems with the kind of individualistic, syncretic spirituality many of us are involved with. It certainly hits home for me personally, with no access to sangha except through retreats and online tutelage from teachers.
    The other comment I wanted to make is that what we’ve learned from the likes of Mark Singleton and David Gordon White about supposedly ancient Hatha Yoga practices promulgated by the most popular and influential teachers really being mostly 19th and 20th century inventions made in response to the intrustion of the West has an exact analogue in the world of modern vipassana, where scholarship in just the past 10-15 years from Rupert Gethin, Bhikkhus Analayo and Sujato, and most recently Erik Braun, show quite clearly that the techniques promulgated by Mahasai Sayadaw, U Ba Khin and S.N. Goenka were invented out of whole cloth in the 20th century and are far removed from both prior Theravada and Indo-Tibetan tradition and anything the Buddha himself might have practiced or taught.
    As a consequence, one is just about exactly as unlikely to encounter tutelage in samatha leading to jhana in the service of insight as one is to stumble upon a yoga class that teaches yoga a la Patanjali, having one take one’s seat on the cushion with the balance of the session spent in meditation. It is also at the root of the popularity of secularized mindfulness practices that are so easily co-opted by the likes of Google. I posted about this at some length recently in response to Inquiring Mind’s current issue, much of which is devoted to the question of whether Buddhist-derived mindfulness practices ought to be taught to the military:
    Thank you again for your writing!

    1. Hi Kevin, thanks so much for the response. I saw your article, and I’ve been following these issues in Theravada sanghas as well. Yes, similar movements of scholarship and inquiry are happening. I’m excited for Eric’s book on Ledi Sayadaw, which I haven’t read yet. I read both movements — in yoga and Theravada — as being positive reflections of second and third generation western practitioners, deeply devoted to the traditions, with the tools of postmodern scholarship, better translations, and access. We are questioning the history we received from our teachers, some of whom describe settings so much more inhospitable than any we endure! (One teacher of mine describes sitting through long empowerments in Tibetan in the early 1970s, where there were no translators in the country at all, and he just had to guess at what the practice was, and just wait for someone to show up who could translate! Now some of the clearest translations from Pali, Tibetan, and Sanskrit ever made fill my home bookshelf. Wow.)
      I’ve been loving, particularly, Analayo’s work. His reframing of Brahmavihara practice based on the suttas rather than on the Vissudhimagga model of the phrases has been a delight to practice. And of course his Satipatthana is changing how I practice with that text.
      Bows of respect for your own writing and scholarship, and warm wishes for your practice, out there in the sangha-less hinterlands.
      Warmest, sean.

  9. Great job with this Sean. Thank you.
    Two points: I sometimes self-identify as HIndu (and even have a certificate of conversion to prove it), so that means you don’t know zero “white” folks who so identify.
    Second, “Hindu” did not originate as a British term but was first used as a self-designator in the 15th century (in distinction to the Muslim “other”). Citations are in my forthcoming dissertation.
    best, CW (Hareesh)

    1. Hi Hareesh! I knew that “ZERO” line would draw some converts out of the woodwork. Happy to hear your identification. 🙂 And it’s interesting to me that I’m sure I actually know several, but that I’ve never heard anyone use the word — it exists in such a different cultural place in the west than Buddhism.
      And thanks for the correction and detail on “Hindu”. I was reporting history as I’ve been taught it — undoubtedly not the whole story. I’ll look for more detail on that, and would love a reference for it at some point so I can know the history better.

    1. (How does one reply to the main post?!)
      Hi Sean, just wanted to add my thanks…
      I’ve known that these concerns must exist for others—as they do in a big way for me, a meditating (but not Buddhist!), sometime kirtanji (but heavens no am I a Hindu!), plus all kinds of assumptions/notions/prejudices visible and invisible—but haven’t known where to find these dialogues happening.
      I’ve taken to saying that I value what grows out of silence and stillness but these days I’m recognizing the incompleteness of this. At the very least I need more sangha… I look forward to diving more into yours words and the words and links of people responding to you!
      c. todd

      1. Hi Todd! Thanks for writing. Yes to more sangha, to what arises from silence, and to keeping deepening dialogue happening. Happy to have these conversations with you more sometime. Blessings this rainy winter, and to you in your practice always. Much love, sean.

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