Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Balance, and 'Om'

Due to overwhelming family and work demands this week, I will (to my dismay) be using our one 'free' post allowance to regain equilibrium and do some serious 'Om' exercises.

Random Thoughts

For our Unit 1 Essay, we must answer two questions, what is karma and what is samsara, without getting caught in the minute details and distinctions between the two concepts in Hinduism versus Buddhism. Attempting to define “karma and rebirth [samsara is the continuing cycle of rebirth] has been called a “’lively but vain attempt’” by scholars (Tull, 309).  As a Hindu, I have spent considerable free time pondering the two notions, although admittedly, I did not know that the term samsara existed to represent the process of multiple rebirths despite being aware of the process itself. My thoughts on the subject have always been “erratic” or never clearly expressed, so I mainly enjoy this class because it personally provides some clarity about my own religion while also exposing me to a lesser-known religion. For now, I can attempt to relay my thoughts, hopefully helping me gain insight on what I can write for my upcoming paper. I present some personal ideas and questions that I have that do not fit into the confines of this particular paper.

Karma is the “’doctrine’ or ‘law’ that ties actions to results and creates a determinant link between an individual’s status in this life and his or her fate in future lives” (Tull, 309).  In simple words, the idea of karma proposes that one’s actions, resulting from one’s choices, determines the type of life (good or bad, pleasant or miserable, as a human or some other being) he or she will be reborn into in the next round of samsara. I have never been able to consider karma, however, without also considering the concepts of “dharma” and “predetermination.” Dharma is one’s “path,” and very simply put, one can achieve “good” karma by following or acting along with one’s dharma, and vice versa regarding “bad” karma. In the Bhagavad Gita, a very highly regarded portion of the Mahabharata for Hindus, Lord Krishna lectures Arjun on the vital importance of acting according to one’s dharma. With this understanding of dharma, one then has an active choice in choosing his or her actions.

On the other hand, most Hindus believe in the concept of predestination, that every aspect of one’s life has been predetermined by God. Personally, I strongly believe in predestination and the idea that everything happens for a reason. Yet if everything in my life has already been planned out, do I have active choice in relation to my dharma, and if I do not, how does this development affect karma and samsara? I bounce back and forth between, one, thinking that I possess no active choice in what occurs in my life or, two, that the main events in my life are preset and that I control the path of how I get there. Many, Hindus and non-Hindus alike, shut down predetermination, calling it merely a “coping mechanism.” I acknowledge that this concept can indeed used as a sort of excuse, like if I did not study for a test, made a bad grade, and attributed the entire scenario to my predestiny. But if I tried my hardest, studied, and still made a bad grade, is thinking that a reason, a purpose for this episode will eventually be made evident still considered just a way to cope?

Apologies for the tangent/rambling/straying away from the topic of the paper! :o

Nonrepetitive Time

This blog post doesn’t really have a main focus or question. I am trying to recap the reading in preparation for the essay. I have some questions regarding nonrepetitive and repetitive time.
The Buddhist notion of time and space is deeply engrained in samsara and has realms that are regulated by karma. Time, in both our world and the world, is fueled by intentions and driven by desire. In some way, time in Buddhism parallels Hindu yugas -- both are expansive and without beginning (the specific yugas end and begin, but as I understand the yugas are still subject to samara, and if samsara is endless, then so is time within the yugas themselves). Both traditions also ascertain that the realms are populated with beings that have specific karmic pasts. In the chapter, “Past and Future Buddhas,” Collins mentions a text called The Lion’s Roar on the Wheel-turning King, that defines karma as the residue of past actions, thus “everyone [. . .] lives according to their (past) deeds, rich and poor, happy and unhappy, attractive and unattractive, long lived and short lived” (Collins 135). Collins mentions time in relation text, but he does so in a way that to me seems to negate these concepts of time.

Collins says:  “The va ̇msa texts – every time they are recited and retold – recount a linear historical narrative; but in doing so they both express and embody the repetitive interweaving of timeless nirvanized Buddhahood with the texture of all time, past, present, and future.” The biographies al the twenty-four buddhas, Collins mentions, might create the illusion that “repetitive time is dominant in the Buddhavamsa” however, “non-repetitive time is emphasized throughout in a variety of ways, notably by a striking simile” (Collins 141). The image of a river as the cycle of death and rebirth and of sand/shore as nirvana is what this metaphor is referring to. He also states that “in this context it is not merely a general ‘river of time’ that is contrasted with timeless eternity, but one of non-repetitive time… here position Buddhas and the opportunities for salvation they provide in a linear, irreversible sequence” (143). I am a little confused regarding this point-- as I have understood it, time is not linear because it has no beginning, yet it does have an end, but only an end in the realization and attainment of nirvana. “Opportunities for salvation” would be both radical action (in terms of committing to the the path) but also everyday actions, i.e. karma, whose good effects can be irreversible. How does nonrepetitive and repetitive time relate to karma and samsara / did they mention this in the reading and I somehow missed it?

Karma and Rebirth in Buddhist Divine Stories of Kotikarna and Svagata

Our most recent readings present the stories of two very different individuals born into their final life. Kotikarna is raised in the lap of ultimate luxury, attended by every pleasure and every good fortune (Divyavadana, 39-42). Svagata is born into a similar setting, but his family, home, and caretakers are destroyed because of the bad karma that he brings with him (Divyavadana, 290-292). How can both men be so filled with virtue that they both become arhats? Both commit evil actions in this life, actions that should bind them more tightly to the wheel of samsara. For example, Kotikarna spends his entire life until (apparently) young adulthood, "[He] would stay on the upper floor of his palatial home, and there he would fool around, enjoy himself, and make love" (Divyavadana, 42). Svagata, "went to a liquor store, and there he drank some alcohol that gets one very drunk" (Divyavadana 298). Yet, the Buddha was pleased with both of them (Divyavadana 69 and 322). It seems to me that they have one major commonality. Both, in a previous life, did good for a monk and had a strong desire to have virtue (Divyavadana 69 and 321). This is a factor that overpowers all other bad karma and results in the eventual understanding of the Truth.

The Hypersexualization of Sita

Before watching Sita Sings the Blues in class, I had heard of the movie but not for all good reasons. I knew that it was a very popular depiction of the Ramayana, but I also knew that it caused controversy. Many Hindu people were offended by the way a text that they hold so sacred was shown. Media plays a huge role in how we perceive our world. We live in the world where perfection is defined by what we see or hear on TV, in the movies, or read in magazines/books. This portrayal of Hinduism and other religions in the media is falsely construed. For example, most people now associated Islam with violence and completely ignore the religious values they hold true. The controversy pertaining to Sita Sings the Blues is similar to the example of Islam. In the eyes of practicing Hindu's, this movie puts a false idea in people's heads about Hinduism.

Because I was aware of this controversy, I cautiously watched for aspects of the movie that could be seen as offensive. Because of my slight background in Women and Gender Studies, I immediately noticed the intense hypersexualization of Sita. She is depicted with large breasts, a very tiny waist, large hips, and big eyes with batting eyelashes. She is given a completely unrealistic, unattainable image.

She has no sense of independence and her life depends completely on Rama. Depending on how one chooses to interpret this, women as submissive, sexual objects can be wrongly applied to all Hindu women. This reinforces the constant battle for women in media.

Sita and Karma

This blog post will focus specifically on Sita and how her karmic actions, both good and bad, effected her  life.

Throughout the Ramayana, Sita repeatedly acts as the ideal Hindu woman. Her loyalty to Rama and her willingness to go through the multiple tests and challenges posed to her by Rama are just some of the examples in which she is the "idealization as the perfect woman and the perfect wife" (Goldman and Goldman 85). It should come as no surprise then, that Sita's repeated good karmic actions also result in repeated good outcomes. She is rescued from Ravana by Rama, and receives help from multiple gods and goddesses when proving her fidelity to Rama. An example of this is seen in the Ramayana on page 341 when the God of Fire restores Sita from the ordeal of fire, and states, "Here is Vaidehi, O Rama, there is no sin in her! ...She is pure and without taint... it is my command that she should not suffer reproach in any way." 

However, are the many trails and challenges of Sita, such as being captured by Ravana or being banished by her husband, indications of some negative karmic action she may have took? Sita suffers for a significant portion of the epic despite remaining extremely loyal throughout, which may seem odd and not in line with the idea of karma. However, when looking back through the story there do seem to be a couple of instances in which Sita may not act as the "perfect woman". During Rama and Sita's banishment, Marica, a raksasa and assistant to Ravana, transforms into a golden deer with the purpose of luring Rama away. When Sita sees the deer she, "...covets it, and she sends Rama to catch it for her" (Goldman and Goldman, 80). Desire is seen as a negative action in the karmic traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism (find source +expand?), and perhaps Sita's display of desire is a kind of cause for her suffering later in the story. 

Another instance of a possible negative action is when Sita refuses to return with Hanuman, asking that Rama save her himself. This action did result in the deaths of many creatures, a fact that Sita herself points out when asking Rama what his motivations were for battling Ravana if not to save her. "...thou wouldst have been spared useless fatigue on mine account and others lives would not have been sacrificed, nor thine friends exhausted to no purpose" (Valmiki, 337). However, this action of waiting for Rama to save her does also demonstrate a kind of loyalty that is typically praised in the Ramayana. In this case, I don't think it would be correct to definitively label Sita's behavior as definitively "good" or "bad", but it still remains interesting, especially from a karmic point of view. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Gods Among Us

While reading the passages from the Ramayna, I noticed that sometimes, people treat others like Gods, and that had me wondering what the "standard" is for that kind of behavior. For example, in "Sita Sings the Blues," when Rama rejects Sita for living in another man's home (even though it was against her will), she says she could have killed Ravana herself, but the only reason she didn't was because Rama didn't order her to. She goes on to say that she has no reason to live, so she has Rama build her a funeral pyre so she can burn herself to death. It is understandable that Sita would do this, because Sita was a devout wife and treated Rama like a God. I did some research, and according to the Mahabharata "... the husband is the wife's highest deity... A woman has no protector like her lord, and no happiness like her lord... What chaste woman is there that would, when deprived of her lord, venture to bear the burden of life?" (I found that here.) So whether or not she knew he was an avatar of Vishnu, she was doing her righteous duty according to the Mahabharata.

I also noticed Rama's relationship with his parents. Rama is said to be the perfect man, and no doubt is the perfect son as well. For example, when Kaikeyi told Rama that he has been banished to Dandaka for 14 years, he just accepts it without protest because it is the right thing to do. As he says, "...there is no greater act of righteousness than this: obedience to one's father and doing as he bids." I think in Hinduism, it is everyone's righteous duty to treat our parents like Gods. Rama even shows evidence of regarding his mother in the same way when he asked for her blessings and "reverently circled" her (pradakshina), something typically done to Gods at Hindu temples. Nowadays, there probably aren't that many parents, if any, that make their kids treat them like Gods and we're not hidebound to obey our parents' every bizarre request, but it is still our righteous duty to respect them.

Did people know then that Rama was an avatar of Vishnu? If not, when did they find out? (I know a while ago I asked this of Buddha as well.) 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Speech and Hinduism

For this post I intend to discuss examples of the power of speech in the Vedas and in the Upanishads, focusing on its creative power and how it is linked to the divine.

The Vedas and the creation of the world itself are focused on the importance of speech. The highest caste, the brahmins, come from the mouth of Purusa when he is divided, and two major gods Indra and Agni (Rg Veda, Creation, paragraphs 12-13). Agni, or fire, is also referenced later in the Upanisads as related to speech (Brhadaranyaka Upanisad 3.9.24). Speech and breath retain their significance in the Upanisads, Atman is described as being found in speech, "he is incomplete as he comes to be called breath when he is breathing, speech when he is speaking" (Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, 1.4.7) and to be realized when one knows one is brahman "if a man knows brahman in this way, he becomes the whole world" (Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, 1.4.10). Speech and breath fulfill two of the desires of men, "his speech is his wife; his breath is his offspring" (Brhadaranyaka Upanisad 1.4.17), essential parts of being complete. Speech and breath are given further powers by Yajnavalkya, who states, "Who is the one God? Breath. He is called 'Brahman,'" (Brhadaranyaka Upanisad 3.9.9) and "On what is speech founded? [...] ourselves," (Brhadaranyaka Upanisad 3.9.24-25) and "the highest brahman is speech" (Brhadaranyaka Upanisad 4.1.2). Furthermore, I wish to echo Yajnavalya's explanation of the importance of speech. Speech is how truth is conveyed, how prayers are made, how people are taught. As the Vedas were oral traditions, it is also how they were conveyed and passed down. Speech (and breath) are foundations of Hinduism and thus are given places of power among its precepts and in Indian society--the speakers of the Vedas and the rituals are the highest caste.


I'm sorry I got overwhelmed this week and cannot post :/

Nirvana and Buddhist Cosmology

In my post today I first want to start with a short paragraph talking about a question I had concerning reaching nirvana. Then I'll go into some thoughts I had about the orderliness of the Buddhist cosmological framework.

My question about nirvana came while reading in Gethin's Foundation's of Buddhism. On page 118, Gethin states that every being during his or her cycle of samsara will be reborn into each of the 31 classes of beings. However, on the next page, it is stated that nirvana can be attained at any level of being (barring the four lowest realms). So my question is, is it possible to skip a level of being? Could an individual attain enlightenment "early" so to speak, and end up skipping some level? Or is it, due to the nature of being and of nirvana, simply impossible?

As I was reading Gethin's descriptions of Buddhism's understanding of the nature of the cosmos, I was struck by how organized and symmetrical the framework was. As complex and ever changing as the Buddhist cosmology is, it remains relatively orderly, at least when examining it on a surface level. That's why when, on page 126, Gethin brings up the "curious fact" that the cosmological scheme has 31 levels rather than 32, I was a little surprised, as the number 32 is a number that represents completion and wholeness in the Buddhist tradition . In my experience with Asian culture, (which has predominately been of East Asian, and more specifically Chinese culture) the symbolism of numbers is very important and extremely reinforced. For example, the number 9  appears frequently in Chinese art and architecture, especially when the subject is that of an Emperor, as the pronunciation of "9" is the same for the word meaning "long lasting". And instances in which a number is used without consideration for its meaning are very rare. The Rg Veda selections we were given to read at the beginning of the year also stress the importance of numbers and their role in riddles, specifically in The Riddle of the Sacrifice (p. 71).

This brings me back to my thoughts on the use of the number 31 in Buddhist cosmology, and also gives me reason to believe that there is a deeper meaning behind it. Gethin implies that there is something "missing" from this framework, namely nirvana. He then goes on however, to reinforce that nirvana absolutely cannot be considered a level of being, as one is never reborn into nirvana, and neither will one eventually attain nirvana just by being. My own thoughts on this are that, even in this seemingly orderly and organized framework of the world, dukkha still exists not only in the very literal sense of being in the world, but also perhaps in the symbolic sense as well. While dukkha is normally defined as "suffering", it can also have the meaning of being "out of place" or "uncomfortable", which is exactly what I might feel when I see a number that is just 1 away from being perfect (obsessive compulsive tendencies notwithstanding). It becomes even more fitting that nirvana is not included in these 31 levels, as nirvana is precisely the absence of dukkha.

The Invisible I?

Gethin notes under the chapter entitled ‘No Self’ (p 143), ‘ There is no primary substance to remain constant’. What can be understood from a Buddhist perspective of the path in attaining nirvana is that one can be encapsulated within a constant state of samsara, and pass through many states of birth and death. Gethin emphasizes in regards to causality the casual connectedness of each successive point of experience through the aggregates. Is it so that the substrate of this process constitute the nature of awakening, where no beginning and end exist but a constant finite juxtapositions of experience? Where is the self evident in this aggregate process? Language seems to have have significant limitations in regards to this undisclosed ‘I’ especially in regards to Buddhist texts and Buddha’s teaching. With such limitations, can we ever fully know the nature of the self?

Karma as a manifestation of divine law and grace - pg. 296 -

The first part of this reflection is merely me trying to contextualize nirvana and moka in relation to karma. Recapping our class work and reading. After that, I get into my questions regarding a specific school of Hindu thought which holds that karma is a principle of liberation (on page 296 for reference).

In class we discussed that in the Buddhist perspective, both “our” world and “the” world are fueled by karma and intentions. These intentions drive the cycle of causality, and contribute to change, which thus informs dukkha / “unsatisfactoriness”. The karmic nature of the world is confined within the cyclical time of samsara, and nirvana, in comparison, is thought to be exempt from causal relations. It is a mental resistant but not an internal one -- it does not depend on sentient beings for its existence. The Buddhist nirvana and Hindu mokṣa seem to share many commonalities- they both exist independent of space and time, they both result in the cessation of change, and they are both free from experience and distress. The differences seem to lie in the path and in the nature of the soul, if returning to some fabric of the universe exists or occurs. In Buddhism, there is no return to an essence. There is only freedom from causality. This brings me to my main question/ point of unclarity: In The Hindu World, Klostermaier discusses the different ways Hinduism has conceptualized the way to freedom, and he states that one school emphasizes liberation through ritual practice alone. This same school understands karma as “one of the manifestations of divine law and grace,” in which “karma is a principle of liberation together with the grace of Siva” (296). That “Bhaskara maintains that karma is a direct means to salvation”  (296). How does this idea of karma relate to our previous definition of karma as causality or action, and as the force that one must forego to achieve liberation (in Hindu terms)? Does karma in this context mean something different? Or does it insinuate the same properties but perhaps is used in a different way? Is it a positive concept or a negative one in the context (to me it seems positive)?


I'm sorry, I got too overwhelmed to post this week. 

Monday, September 14, 2015

Descartes vs Buddha

When it comes to the concept of the self, there are many different believes and ideas about its nature. Questions are commonly asked such as "Do I exist?", "Do I not exist?", "If so, why do I exist?", "In what realm do I exist in?", and "In what capacity do I exist?" Many leaders and scholars throughout time have attempted to find answers to these questions and ultimately find truth. Two examples of people who want to explain the nature of the self are Rene Descartes and Siddhārtha Gautama (Buddha). These two men, who are very important to their specific disciplines and beliefs, would disagree with each other on the nature of the self.

In Descartes Meditations on First Philosophy, he attempts to find truth by disproving his prior believes. After Descartes disproved these prior beliefs he realizes that when everything else is gone, he is still left with himself. Since he has this powerful ability to doubt everything that he previously believed, he must exist to be able to doubt. To Descartes, the fact that he can doubt proves his existence. He establishes that through thought there is an “I” or self. He exclaims this saying, “I think, therefore I am.” Although this idea is compelling and widely known, in my opinion, the Buddha would disagree.

The Buddha would argue the opposite; saying that the “I” is impermanent and always changing, thus there is no self. This is a huge concept in Buddhism that helps form its basic beliefs and values. In the opinion of the Buddha, asking questions such as “Do I exist?” will inevitably lead to more stress and further to more suffering, which is what we want to ultimately escape from.

One final connection between the two is the concept of meditation. Meditation is present in Buddhism and Descartes also writes on six meditations that lead him to finding truth. The undeniable difference between these two forms of meditation is the goal. Descartes uses meditation to clear out everything that isn’t the self and thus find this self or “I” that he has been searching for. For Buddhists, meditation is a time to search for the self but ideally not find it, because there is no self. The goal here is emptiness.