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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

trentgilliss:

Another musical legend has passed away. The sitar player Ravi Shankar died yesterday at the age of 92. A spiritual and musical guru to many Western seekers, most famously George Harrison of the Beatles, he was also a teacher and a father. I think I’d like to best remember him as just that. Here he is instructing, improvising, jamming with his daughter Anoushka Shankar.

Loved Krista’s interview with her way back in 2003!

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When a Jain Marries a Bengali: An Indian Love Story That Defied Tradition

by Benjamin Gottlieb, guest contributor

Ashok Jain and FamilyAshok Jain, his wife Neena, and family at their home in New Delhi. (Photo by Benjamin Gottlieb)

On the day of his wedding, Ashok Jain’s parents beat him mercilessly after he told them he married a Hindu woman.

“They didn’t accept my marriage,” said Mr. Jain, whose family practices Jainism, an ancient Indian religion that emphasizes non-violence. “They asked me to walk out of the home without anything… without even a toothbrush.”

Ashok Jain left his parents’ home in New Delhi 34 years ago with nothing but the clothes on this back. His marriage to Neena, a Bengali Hindu, tore his family apart; his parents, completely baffled by their son’s desire to marry outside his Jain religion, disowned him. He would not see his parents until his son’s first birthday, five years later.

In a traditional Indian marriage, partners are arranged for children by their parents, often at very young ages. The idea of wedding for love — let alone outside of one’s community — is seen historically as taboo. But Mr. Jain’s story of breaking conventional attitudes toward marriage constitutes a growing trend in India’s urban communities that rejects arranged marriages as the only acceptable union.

“The more important thing which spoke to me — above love and all that — was that I had to live for my own identity,” Mr. Jain, who works as a tour guide based in Delhi, said. “I wanted to stand on my own two feet and do what was right, regardless of any social pressure.”

A Complex System of Class in Castes

India's Caste SystemStrict laws concerning marriage in India are fortified by caste, a complex system of social stratification indigenous to the subcontinent. The system is demarcated by four major groupings, known as the varnas, and further stratified into subcastes or jati.

Mr. Jain’s family is from the third caste, known as the Vaishyas, which make up the merchant class of India. His wife, on the other hand, comes from a Brahman family, the highest caste.

“Surprisingly, the resistance came from my family, even though I was marrying up, so to speak, and she was marrying down,” Mr. Jain said.

Ashok and Neena met in Buenos Aires in mid-1970s while both of their fathers worked in India’s foreign service. At first, their families accepted Ashok and Neena’s friendship because, “we needed a fourth person for bridge,” Neena joked.

But when things became serious, Mr. Jain’s family, which he describes as more traditional, became very reticent to the prospect of them getting married. The thought of ripping apart their families forced the two to separate.

“We had decided that she would go her way and see boys and I would go my ways and see other girls,” Mr. Jain recalled. “We agreed to call each other when we decided to get married to someone else.”

After numerous failed attempts by their parents to arrange a marriage for each of them, Ashok and Neena decided to forego tradition.

“When we made the phone call, I said ‘I’m not getting married to anybody’ and she said the same thing,” Mr. Jain said. “And so we said, ‘What the hell?’”

Back in Delhi, the two wed at an Arya Samaj temple, a small sect in Hinduism that, among other progressive ideas, denounced the caste system in 1978. Unlike the typical Indian wedding, which boasts hundreds of guests and lavish party decor, Ashok and Neena’s marriage only included a few close friends; their wedding attendance, or lack thereof, would later exemplify the first few years of their lives together.

“Looking back, I was satisfied with whatever we had,” Neena, who works in Argentina’s New Delhi embassy, said. “It was hard to bring the kids up alone, especially the first year with my eldest son. Not having anyone to help me out, the frustration at times of taking care of our kids… that was hard.”

Intercaste Marriage in Rural and Urban Areas of India

In Mr. Jain’s India — which he describes as urban, educated, and modern — intercaste and interfaith marriages are becoming more commonplace. His two sons married sisters from the same Punjabi-Hindu family, and his close friends are made up of those who have either married outside of their faith or have progressive ideas about marriage.

“But my India is not the real India,” Mr. Jain said. “Changing norms, changing traditions, breaking traditions. This is not happening for a large part of the country.”

While India continues to modernize rapidly, more than 70 percent of the country’s 1.2 billion people still live in rural areas. Attitudes toward intercaste or interfaith marriage in these rural areas continue to be traditional.

“Intercaste marriage is confined mostly to society’s elite,” said Sohail Hashmi, a writer and historian living in Delhi. “In [India’s] major cities, if you fall in love with someone from the wrong caste, it’s not so bad. But in rural parts of the country, marrying outside your caste could spell banishment or, in extreme cases, death.”

The killings Mr. Hashmi references stem from well-known horror stories in Indian khaps, or social councils in rural villages.

A common afterthought in an interfaith or intercaste marriage is the identity of the couple’s children. In a society that places great importance on one’s caste and religion for the purpose of identity, the children of interfaith marriages run the risk of being ostracized by society.

But that was never a concern for Mr. Jain and his two sons. When asked what his children’s caste or religion is, he responded emphatically, “No caste. No religion.”

“If you were to break it down, I’d say geographically I’m from Delhi but do I follow religion? No, I don’t,” said Sunny, Mr. Jain’s second son. “I had a very secular education as well, so until the end of high school I never really gave this a thought about ‘who is who’.”

When asked how he self-identifies, Sunny, a 30-year-old software entrepreneur, replied with a smile, “I don’t.”

Despite all turmoil associated with Ashok’s decision to marry outside his community, he admitted he now holds a more favorable opinion of arranged marriage.

“There have been cases when young people have come to my wife and I and said, ‘Oh uncle, you did this… so let us know what do you think?’ I tell them that it is not an easy decision, but it’s your decision,” he said.

“You have to decide what you want, decide what is right and wrong… and then, you have to face the baby.”


Benjamin GottliebBenjamin Max Gottlieb is a multimedia journalist and photographer from Los Angeles, California. He is currently a web producer at The Washington Post and the art director of InTheFray.org. Follow him on Twitter at @benjamin_max.

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At a Crossroads: When a Young Hindu Converts to Christianity in Delhi

by Emily Frost, guest contributor

Shivanika, friend of KanikaAt a coffee shop in Delhi, Kanika thought she was spending just another afternoon passing time with her childhood friend Jo Jo, avoiding the heat and the crush of people outside. But there was something different in the way Jo Jo approached her that day. He had a special question for her: Do you know what is happening to your soul when you die? Kanika had no idea, and that worried her.

Surprisingly, in their twenty years of friendship, Jo Jo, an Indian Evangelical Christian, and Kanika, a Hindu, had never discussed their religions. That day at Costa Coffee though, Jo Jo started a long discussion, scribbling Christian themes and images on the napkins scattered around him. Kanika collected the napkins and poured over them that night in bed.

In the weeks to come, Kanika began talking to other Christian friends and considering a conversion. She knew hardly anything about Christianity and had grown up in a devout Hindu family, but the question of life after death remained unanswered for her.

Now, four years later, at 24, Kanika is at a crossroads. She has become an Evangelical Christian in secret, and her family disapproves of any reference she makes to Christianity.

Read More

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Hindus Honor the Destroyer During Maha Shivratri

by Susan Leem, associate producer + Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Images of ShivaIn preparation for the Maha Shivratri festival, an Indian girl touches up these in-demand statuettes of Lord Shiva at a roadside stall on the outskirts of Amritsar. (photo: Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images)

Lord Shiva, one of the Trimurti in the Hindu trinity, is recognized today during the festival of Maha Shivratri. At this time, Hindus offer special prayers and fast to worship Lord Shiva, the Lord of Destruction. Lord Shiva’s devotees consider him to be the destroyer of the world, ego, and attachments. At temples devoted to Shiva, the devout pray and burn incense as offerings during a night-long vigil.

Incense offeringAs part of their prayers, Indian Hindu devotees offer incense sticks before an idol of Lord Shiva at the Shivala temple in Bangalore, India. (photo: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images)

The Shiva Lingam

Shiva is often represented symbolically with a Shiva Lingam (photos below), an ancient phallic figure that is incorporated into the ritual of bathing as part of the Maha Shivratri celebrations. Subhamoy Das offers this helpful description:

The phallus symbol representing Shiva is called the lingam. It is usually made of granite, soapstone, quartz, marble or metal, and has a “yoni” or vagina as its base representing the union of organs. Devotees circumambulate the lingam and worship it throughout the night. It is bathed every three hours with the 5 sacred offerings of a cow, called the “panchagavya” — milk, sour milk, urine, butter, and dung. Then the five foods of immortality — milk, clarified butter, curd, honey, and sugar — are placed before the lingam. Datura fruit and flower, though poisonous, are believed to be sacred to Shiva and thus offered to him.

For married blissNepalese Hindu women offer prayers to Shiva on the banks of the Shali River on the outskirts of Kathmandu. Hundreds of married and unmarried women in the Himalayan nation fast for the month leading up to Maha Shivratri with hopes of a prosperous life and conjugal happiness. (photo: Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty Images)

ShivlingA Hindu priest scatters rose petals on the Shivling at the Shree Pshupatinath Mandir at Singarwa village on Mahashivratri. The Shree Pshupatinath Mandir at Singarwa, a replica of that in Nepal, is thronged by Nepalese Hindus across Gujarat state. (photo: Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images)

Shivling idolIndian Hindu devotees pray over the Shivling or idol of Lord Shiva at the Shivala Temple in Amritsar. (photo: Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images)

ShivlinganIndian Hindu devotees perform rituals in front of a 12-foot tall Maha Shivlingam at the Bramha Kumaris Shanti Sarovar in Hyderabad. (photo: Noah Seelam/AFP/Getty Images)

The next morning followers break their fast after the nightlong worship with a family feast.

Hindu holy manA sadhu (Hindu holy man) returns after offering prayers to Lord Shiva in Kathmandu. (photo: Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty Images)

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Raksha Bandan, A Celebration of Brotherhood and Sisterhood

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Tying rakhi around a brother's wristA woman ties a rakhi, a sacred thread, around her brother’s wrist for a Raksha Bandhan festival in Bangalore, India. (photo: Dibyanshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images)

Raksha Bandhan literally means "a bond of protection" and Hindus celebrate brotherhood on this day, the full moon day of the Shravan month. It’s a celebration of relationships where the symbolic thread, or rakhi bracelet represents an inseparable bond of love and trust between a brother and sister with a pledge to take care of one another.

If you don’t have a brother or a sister, the goodwill metaphor is intended to apply more broadly to your neighbors and community. Priests may tie rakhis around the wrists of congregation members or close friends share them. Women will tie rakhis around the wrists of the prime minister, or around the wrists of soldiers.

Tying rakhi onto soldiers' wristsIndian college girls tie rakhi onto the wrists of Indian Army Jawans, or soldiers. (photo: Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images)

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Hindu Celebration of the Brother-Sister Bond
by Shubha Bala, associate producer
Today is Raksha Bandhan, or Rakhi, a North Indian, Hindu holiday celebrating the bond between siblings. One of the many legends reported to be the origin of the holiday comes from the Hindu epic, the Mahabaratha. Queen Draupadi once tore a strip of silk off her sari and tied it around Lord Krishna’s index finger to stop the flow of blood. Krishna found himself bound to her by this action of love and promised to repay the debt to her. He had this chance when her husband lost her through gambling. Krishna, using his powers as a God, indefinitely extended her sari as they tried to strip her naked so it could never be removed, thus saving her pride and being her ultimate protector.
Raksha Bandhan, as with most Hindu holidays, can be celebrated differently or with different names depending on one’s region of India. In essence, a woman ties a thread, or bracelet, on a brother, blessing him and praying for him to have a long life. In return, the brother vows to protect the sister and gives her sweets, gifts, or money. The traditions have evolved so that the people celebrating are no longer just siblings but often cousins, family-friends, or really anyone that can be considered to have a brother-sister-like bond. In fact, one Twitterer today complained, “Oh man I’m broke giving out envelopes to all my ‘sisters’.”
If you’re interested in hearing more about this holiday, including a story from the 15th century of Rakhi saving a queen’s life, listen to this interview on Radio Canada International.
In the photo above, a man shows off multiple bracelets received for the North Indian Hindu holiday Raksha Bandhan (Vishweshwar Saran Singh Deo/Flickr).
Hindu Celebration of the Brother-Sister Bond
by Shubha Bala, associate producer
Today is Raksha Bandhan, or Rakhi, a North Indian, Hindu holiday celebrating the bond between siblings. One of the many legends reported to be the origin of the holiday comes from the Hindu epic, the Mahabaratha. Queen Draupadi once tore a strip of silk off her sari and tied it around Lord Krishna’s index finger to stop the flow of blood. Krishna found himself bound to her by this action of love and promised to repay the debt to her. He had this chance when her husband lost her through gambling. Krishna, using his powers as a God, indefinitely extended her sari as they tried to strip her naked so it could never be removed, thus saving her pride and being her ultimate protector.
Raksha Bandhan, as with most Hindu holidays, can be celebrated differently or with different names depending on one’s region of India. In essence, a woman ties a thread, or bracelet, on a brother, blessing him and praying for him to have a long life. In return, the brother vows to protect the sister and gives her sweets, gifts, or money. The traditions have evolved so that the people celebrating are no longer just siblings but often cousins, family-friends, or really anyone that can be considered to have a brother-sister-like bond. In fact, one Twitterer today complained, “Oh man I’m broke giving out envelopes to all my ‘sisters’.”
If you’re interested in hearing more about this holiday, including a story from the 15th century of Rakhi saving a queen’s life, listen to this interview on Radio Canada International.
In the photo above, a man shows off multiple bracelets received for the North Indian Hindu holiday Raksha Bandhan (Vishweshwar Saran Singh Deo/Flickr).

Hindu Celebration of the Brother-Sister Bond

by Shubha Bala, associate producer

Today is Raksha Bandhan, or Rakhi, a North Indian, Hindu holiday celebrating the bond between siblings. One of the many legends reported to be the origin of the holiday comes from the Hindu epic, the Mahabaratha. Queen Draupadi once tore a strip of silk off her sari and tied it around Lord Krishna’s index finger to stop the flow of blood. Krishna found himself bound to her by this action of love and promised to repay the debt to her. He had this chance when her husband lost her through gambling. Krishna, using his powers as a God, indefinitely extended her sari as they tried to strip her naked so it could never be removed, thus saving her pride and being her ultimate protector.

Raksha Bandhan, as with most Hindu holidays, can be celebrated differently or with different names depending on one’s region of India. In essence, a woman ties a thread, or bracelet, on a brother, blessing him and praying for him to have a long life. In return, the brother vows to protect the sister and gives her sweets, gifts, or money. The traditions have evolved so that the people celebrating are no longer just siblings but often cousins, family-friends, or really anyone that can be considered to have a brother-sister-like bond. In fact, one Twitterer today complained, “Oh man I’m broke giving out envelopes to all my ‘sisters’.”

If you’re interested in hearing more about this holiday, including a story from the 15th century of Rakhi saving a queen’s life, listen to this interview on Radio Canada International.

In the photo above, a man shows off multiple bracelets received for the North Indian Hindu holiday Raksha Bandhan (Vishweshwar Saran Singh Deo/Flickr).

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Prayer to Shiva

by Shubha Bala, associate producer


The Shiva Lingam at the Hindu Temple of Minnesota, decorated for the holiday Shivarathri.

Priest Sri Gowtham Sharma, at the new Hindu temple of Minnesota, sings a prayer to his family God, Lord Shiva. This particular temple offers equal devotional space to 19 Hindu deities, unlike many other temples which focus primarily on one. As a result, it’s unique in welcoming the many different Hindus, and also Jains, that make up the local South Asian-American community. For Sri Sharma, although Shiva may be his family God, he prays to all the deities at the temple since, as he puts it, “all the power [of the Gods] is one — like all rivers go to the sea.”


Priest Sri Gowtham Sharma (courtesy of Hindu Temple of Minnesota)

My parents, like many of the members of this temple, were once new Hindu immigrants to North America. My interest in visiting the temple is in part my childhood experience of Hinduism — it helps me create a larger context for my personal experience and shed new light on my own family traditions.

What are some of your stories of reconnecting with your traditions, and where have they taken you?

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Vedanta’s Introduced to the West

Shubha Bala, associate producer

Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902) is known for being one of the first people to bring the message of Hinduism to the West. He was a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, and a follower of Vedanta. I recently picked up Vedanta: Voice of Freedom, a compilation of Swami Vivekananda’s speeches, that I had read when I was a teenager.

The book touches on many aspects of Vedanta. For example, he explains that there are three variations among Vedantists: dualists, qualified nondualists, and Advaitists. He explains that Advaitists believe God is “both the material and the efficient cause of the universe”:

"Sometimes a sick man lying on his bed may hear a tap on the door. He gets up and opens it and finds no one there. He goes back to bed, and again he hears a tap. He gets up and opens the door. Nobody is there. At last he finds that it was his own heartbeat, which he fancied was a knock at the door.

Thus man, after this vain search for various gods outside himself, completes the circle and comes back to the point from which he started-the human soul. And he finds that the God whom he was searching for in hill and dale, whom he was seeking in every brook, in ever temple, in churches and heavens, that God whom he was even imagining as sitting in heaven and ruling the world, is his own Self. I am He, and He is I. None but I was God, and this little I never existed.”

Later in the book he reinforces this explanation with another image:

"When Vedanta says that you and I are God, it does not mean the Personal God. To take an example: Out of a mass of clay a huge elephant of clay is manufactured, and out of the same clay a little clay mouse is made. Would the clay mouse ever be able to become the clay elephant? But put them both in water and they are both clay. As clay they are both one, but as mouse and elephant there will be an eternal difference between them. The Infinite, the Impersonal, is like the clay in the example."

Heritage sign
Swami Vivekananda’s house in London, now a heritage building (photo: Shubha Bala)

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The Ramayana, Illustrated
Shubha Bala, associate producer

Sanjay Patel, supervising animator at Pixar, has come out with his second illustrated book on Hinduism, Ramayana: Divine Loophole. Patel is one of the few people who have presented Hindu mythology in a way for North American kids to understand, and enjoy. But he also presents the Ramayana, one of the Hindu epic mythological stories, in a wonderful way for adults too — complete with illustrated character bios and geography lessons in the back.

He says in an Atlantic Monthly interview:

"I grew up in a house where there was no explanation—there was just practice. It was like eating for me: ‘Okay, I’ve got to eat. I’ve got to sit down and pray and stare at these wild illustrations of Hindu gods.’ My parents completely subscribe to these stories as philosophy, of course, but it’s also very much a religion to them, and they do see these beings as gods. I would ask my father, ‘Dad, do you really think there’s a blue guy out there?’ I couldn’t really narrow him down on that. But he seems to believe it.

So the Ramayana was always something my parents would study and worship, but it had no meaning to me until I read the story. Then I was like, ‘Wow, the characters are so cool. The plot is so cool. What they symbolize is so cool. This totally needs to be told!’ I wanted to use all the skills and the knowledge I’d gained at Pixar to put these ancient stories in a package that’s relatable and entertaining. If I have children, I want them to know something about their cultural mythology in a way that’s fresh and dynamic.”

He’s also asked about finding existing images of the Ramayana before creating his book:

"I realized after doing some research that centuries and centuries ago, The Ramayana wasn’t actually illustrated. It was sung and performed, and the actors would bring it to life with masks and costumes. Then later, there were these amazing sculptures. So I was looking at that for sure. But artists only really depicted certain episodes in the Ramayana. I wanted to show all those other scenes, like the part where they meet Jambavan the bear! If I were a kid, I’d want to see cool icons and badass graphics.

That’s what’s so great about this story. If you want to get into the dogma you can. But on a raw level, these stories are amazing conduits for really deep philosophy. I think that’s uniquely Indian in many ways. It’s this profound stuff but told through stories that common people can completely engage with—avatars and man-gods.”

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From Building Blocks to Erector Sets

Shubha Bala, associate producer

"…there are some scientists who say ‘I don’t think electrons really exist.’ It’s useful to think of them as existing. It’s useful to build computers with that image in mind of an electron, but I don’t think they really exist… when other people think of God as a personal thing, that’s as close as you can get given the constraints on human cognition and maybe it’s not something you should apologize for…"

Transcribing Krista’s interview with Robert Wright for next week’s show, I came across this passage, which reminded me of a conversation I had with a Hindu Sanyasi when I was 16. In Hinduism, “God” has different definitions depending on what appeals to you. For example, in my family, I grew up understanding that all the different deities were forms of one personal being. But working in India, I met people who literally believed every deity existed as a separate identity — true polytheism. And this Sanyasi was my first exposure to the idea of God not as a personal being.

He explained it by saying that you have to start in kindergarten, learning simple concepts and forms. I think he believed that many people need rituals and images to understand God, but as their spirits reincarnate (and they “graduate”), they can refine their perception of God towards the truth, just like over time we can understand quantum physics (maybe!).

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