A broad-based interfaith coalition, including Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, and Jews, has targeted a nightclub chain that uses Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain statues for interior decoration. As reported by Religion News Service, the “Foundation Room” night clubs operated by Live Nation Entertainment in U.S. cities including Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Las Vegas, and New Orleans uses the following religious imagery as decor: statues of Buddha (Buddhism); statues of Ganesha, Hanuman, Shiva, and Rama (Hinduism); statues of Mahavira and Parshvanatha (Jainism).
Live Nation said in a statement that the Foundation Room clubs are (according to them) all about “promoting unity, peace, and harmony.” Before you cynically respond “Bullshit!” — it may be that Live Nation’s management really did see the misappropriation of these religious images as promoting unity. Since they’re based in the U.S., we can assume that they — consciously or unconsciously — see the “Judeo-Christian tradition” as normative; and while “Judeo” is merely a modifier of “Christian” in this formulation, Judaism is still seen as somehow normative. Since Christianity and Judaism are part of mainstream U.S. culture, Live Nation’s management would never think of putting up a cross or star of David in one of their nightclubs.
Why then is it OK to use religious images from Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism? Well, part of the answer might well be that “religion” as a concept is a Western concept that only dates back to the Enlightenment. Prior to the Enlightenment, the West did not have a concept that corresponds to our current notion of “religion.” And “religion” as a concept was developed in part as a way to bolster Western colonialist ambitions: “religion” was defined in such a way that only Christianity (and perhaps Judaism, in a debased way) fit the definition; this allowed Western powers to justify domination of non-Western cultures on the grounds Christianizing them. (For more on the link between “religion” and colonialism, see e.g. Timothy Fitzgerald, The Ideology of Religious Studies [Oxford Univ. Press, 2000]; William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict [Oxford Univ. Press, 2009]).
Not surprisingly, colonized peoples are accorded less respect than the colonizers. This might make more sense if I put this in racial terms, since so many of us are thinking about race these days: in the Western worldview, Christianity is seen as the property of the West, which means it’s a white religion; while Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism are generally seen as having adherents who are people of color; while you wouldn’t use white people’s religious symbol in a night club, it would be OK to use the religious symbol belonging to people of color.
However, while colonialism and racism are strongly linked, I find it more helpful to view this dispute over religious imagery in nightclubs as a legacy of colonialism. After all, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism do have white adherents, and there are strong traditions of black and Latinx Christianity. But non-Christian religions are still seen as somehow “primitive” or less advanced than Christianity, and thus may be accorded less respect; and just as in the past, this viewpoint still allows Western nations to see non-Western nations as suitable for colonial domination through both economics and military action.
Maybe I’m making too much out of this. But I do want to explain why Live Nation Entertainment didn’t put crosses or statues of Jesus Christ in their nightclubs; why does Jesus Christ get their respect, but not the Buddha?
Another in a series of stories for liberal religious kids, this one from the Mahabharata. Adapted from The Indian Story Book: Containing Tales from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and Other Early Sources, by Richard Wilson (London: Macmillan & Co., 1914).
One day, near the end of their long exile in the forest, King Yudhisthira and his four brothers were searching for a mysterious deer which had stolen the wooden blocks which a Brahmin needed so he could light the sacred fire. The king and his brothers wandered deeper and deeper into the forest trying to find the deer. They grew more and more thirsty, but they were unable to find water. At last they all sat down, exhausted, beneath a tall tree.
“If we do not find water soon, we shall surely die,” said Yudhisthira He turned to his brother Nakula. “Brother,” he said, “climb the tree for us and see if you can spot water nearby.”
Nakula quickly climbed the tree, and in a few moments called down, “I see trees which only grow near running water, and there I hear the sound of cranes, birds which love the water.”
“Take your quiver,” said Yudhisthira. “Go fill it with water, and bring it back to quench our thirst.”
Nakula set out, and quickly found a small stream which widened into a pool of clear water with a crane standing on the far side.
Nakula knelt down at the edge of the pool to drink. Suddenly a stern Voice spoke: “Do not drink, O Prince, until you have answered my questions.”
Nakula was so thirsty he ignored the Voice, and drank eagerly from the cool water. In a few moments he lay dead at the edge of the pool.
The other four brothers waited patiently Nakula’s return. At last Yudhisthira said, “Where can our brother be? Go, Sahadeva, find your brother, and return with a quiver full of water.”
Sahadeva walked off through the forest. Soon he found Nakula lying dead at the edge of the pool. But he was so thirsty that he did not stop, but knelt down at the pool to drink.
The stern Voice spoke: “Do not drink, O Prince, until you have answered my questions.”
But Sahadeva had already drunk from the water, and lay dead at the edge of the pool.
Once again the remaining brothers waited patiently. At last Yudhisthira spoke to his brother Arjuna, the mighty archer. “Go, Arjuna,” he said, “find our brothers, and return to us with a quiver full of water.”
Arjuna slung his bow over his shoulder, and with his sword at his side walked to the pool. When he saw his brothers lying dead among the reeds, he fitted an arrow to his bow while his keen eyes pierced the darkness of the forest searching for the enemy who had killed them. Seeing neither human nor wild beast, at last he knelt down at the edge of the pool to drink.
The stern Voice spoke: “Do not drink, O Prince, until you have answered my questions.”
Prince Arjuna looked about him. “Come out,” he cried, “and fight with me.” He shot arrows in all directions, but the Voice only laughed at him, and repeated its command.
But Arjuna ignored the Voice, knelt and drank, and soon lay dead at the edge of the pool.
Yudhisthira waited patiently, but when Arjuna did not return, the king turned to Bhima. “Go,” he said, “find our brothers, and return with them and a quiver full of water.”
Bhima silently rose, walked to the pool, and found his brothers lying dead. “What evil demon has killed my brothers,” he thought to himself, looking around. But he was so thirsty he knelt to drink.
Again the stern Voice spoke: “Do not drink, O Prince, until you have answered my questions.”
Bhima had not heard the Voice, and so he lay dead next to his brothers.
Yudhisthira waited for a time, then went himself to find water.
When he came to the pool, he stood for a moment looking at it. He saw clear water shining in the sunlight, lotus flowers floating in the water, and a crane stalking along the edge of the pool. And there were his four brothers lying dead at the edge of the pool.
Even though he was terribly weak and thirsty, he stopped and spoke aloud the name of each of his brothers, and told of the great deeds each had done. He spoke out loud his sorrow for the death of each one.
“This must be the work of some evil spirit,” he thought to himself. “Their bodies show no wounds, nor is there any sign of human footprints. The water is clear and fresh, and I can see no signs that they have been poisoned. But I am so thirsty, I will kneel down to drink.”
As King Yudhisthira knelt down, the Voice took the shape of a Baka, or crane, a gray bird with long legs and a red head. The Baka spoke to him in a stern voice, saying:
“Do not drink, O King, until you have answered my questions.”
“Who are you?” said Yudhisthira boldly. “Tell me what you want.”
“I am not a bird,” said the Baka, “but a Yaksha!” And Yudhisthira saw the vague outlines of a huge being above crane, towering above the lofty trees, glowing like an evening cloud.
“It seems I must obey, and not drink before I answer your questions,” said the king. “Ask me what you will, and I will use what wisdom I have to answer you.”
So the questioning began:
The Yaksha said: “Who makes the Sun rise? Who moves the Sun around the sky? Who makes the Sun set? What is the true nature of the Sun?”
The King replied: “The god Brahma makes the sun rise. The gods and goddesses move the Sun around the sky. The Dharma sets the Sun. Truth is the true nature of the Sun.”
The Yaksha asked: “What is heavier than the earth? What is higher than the heavens? What is faster than the wind? What is there more of than there are blades of grass?”
The King replied: “The love of parents is both heavier than earth and higher than the heavens. A person’s thoughts are faster than the wind. There are more sorrows than there are blades of grass.”
The Yaksha asked: “What is it, that when you cast is aside, makes you lovable? What is it, that when you cast it aside, makes you happy? What is it, that when you cast it aside, makes you wealthy?”
The King replied: “When you cast aside pride, you become lovable. When you cast aside greed, you become happy. When you cast aside desire, you become wealthy.”
The Yaksha asked: “What is the most difficult enemy to conquer? What disease lasts as long as life itself? What sort of person is most noble? What sort of person is most wicked?”
The King replied: “Anger is the most difficult enemy to conquer. Greed is the disease that can last as long as life. The person who desires the well-being of all creatures is most noble. The person who has no mercy is most wicked.”
The questions went on and on, but Yudhisthira was able to answer them all, wisely and well.
At last the Yaksah stopped asking questions, and revealed its true nature: the Yaksha was none other than Yama-Dharma, the god of death, and the father of Yudhisthira.
Yama-Dharma said, “It was I who took on the shape of a deer and stole the wooden blocks so the Brahmin could not light the sacred fire.
“Now you may drink of this fair water, Yudhisthira! And you may choose which of your four brothers shall be returned to life.”
“Let Nakula live,” said Yudhisthira.
“Why not Bhima or Arjuna or Sahadeva?” said Yama-Dharma.
“My brother Nakula is the son of Madri,” said the King, “while Arjuna, Bhima, Sahadeva and I are the sons of Kunthi. If Nakula returns to life, then both my mothers, both Madri and Kunthi, will have a living child. Therefore, let Nakula live.”
Then Yama-Dharma spoke kindly as he faded away. “Truly you are called ‘The Just,” he said. “Noblest of kings and wisest of all persons, for your wisdom and your love and your sense of justice, I shall return all of your brothers to life.”
More riddles — Here are two dozen more of the riddles that Yama-Dharma asked of Yudhisthira:
1. How may a person become secure? — A person becomes secure through courage. 2. How may a person become wise? — A person gains wisdom by living with people who are wise 3. What is best for the Brahmans (those who pursue learning as their life’s work)? — Studying the Vedas, the holy books, is best for the Brahmans. 4. What is best for the Kshathriyas (those who are the warriors and defenders)? Weapons are best for the Kshathriyas. 5. What is best for farmers? — Rain is best for farmers. 6. Who does not close their eyes when sleeping? — Fish do not close their eyes when sleeping. 7. What does not move even after birth? — Eggs do not move even after birth. 8. What does not have a heart? — A stone does not have a heart. 9. What grow as it goes? — A river grows as it goes to the sea. 10. Who is the guest who is welcome to all? — Fire is the guest who is welcome to all. 11. Who travels alone? — The Sun travels alone. 12. Who is born again and again? — The Moon is born again and again. 13. What container can contain everything? — The Earth can contain everything. 14. Out of all things, what is best? — Out of all things, knowledge gained from wise people is best. 15. Out of all blessings, what is best? — Out of all blessings, good health is best. 16. Out of all pleasures, what is best? — Out of all pleasures, being contented is best. 17. Out of all just actions, which is best? — Out of all just actions, non-violence is best. 18. What must a person control in order to never be sad? — A person must control their mind in order to never be sad. 19. What will a person never be sad to leave behind? — A person will never be sad to leave behind anger. 20. What should a person leave behind to become rich? — A person should leave behind desire in order to become rich. 21. What should a person leave behind to be have a happy life? — A person should leave behind selfishness to have a happy life. 22. By what is the world covered? — The world is covered by ignorance. 23. Why doesn’t the world shine brightly? — Bad behavior keeps the world from shining brightly. 24. What is surprising? — It is surprising that we think of ourselves as stable and permanent, when every day we see beings dying.
Illustrations are from the following public domain sources (accessed through the Internet Archive): Sarus Crane, H. E. Dresser, “A History of the Birds of Europe,” London: 1871-1881. Yudhistira and the crane, Mahabharata, Gorakhpur, India: Geeta Press, n.d.
A story from a series for liberal religious kids; this story comes from the Bhagavad Gita.
Once upon a time, two armies assembled at the Kuru Field. On one side was the army of Yudhishthira [Yut-ish-tir-ah], who was the nephew of Dhritarashtra [Dri-tah-rahsh-trah], the great blind King of the Kurus. On the other side was the army of Duryodhana [Dur-yo-tahn-ah], the eldest of Dhri-tarashtra’s hundred sons. Twenty years before, Dhritarashtra had decided to give his kingdom to his nephew Yudhishthira, instead of to his son Duryodhana; for he knew that Duryodhana was wicked and selfish.
As the battle was about to begin, great heroes, their bows and arrows at the ready, stood in their chariots behind their charioteers, who were busy controlling the horses pulling each chariot. Other great heroes also stood at the ready, armed with many different kinds of weapons, each of them skilled in war. (In those days, in that place, only men fought wars, so everyone there was a man.)
Ajuna was one of the heroes who stood in in chariots. His was a large and fine chariot, pulled by magnificent white horses who were driven by a skilled charioteer.
Suddenly, somewhere a warrior blew on a conch shell, making a loud and terrifying sound, to signal that the battle was to begin.
Other warriors took out their conch shells and blew them. Still other people beat on drums and cymbals, and blew loud horns. All this made an incredible noise which sounded over all the earth, up into the sky, making everyone’s heart beat faster.
Someone let loose an arrow, and other warriors responded by shooting their own arrows.
At exactly this moment Arjuna said to his charioteer, “Drive the chariot in between the two armies. I want to look at all these warriors standing eager for battle, those people I’m about to fight.”
His charioteer drove the chariot out in between the two armies. The sound of the conch shells, the sounds of the drums and horns, was just dying away. The two armies are about to join in battle.
Arjuna stood in his chariot, alone in the middle of the field, all prepared to fight. As he looked across the field, he recognizes many of the people in the other army—uncles, teachers, cousins, and friends of his. He saw fathers who had sons in his army, and brothers who were about to fight brothers in his army.
Arjuna thought to himself: “Here are friends and relatives on either side of Kuru Field, about to try and kill each other. This does not make sense.”
Arjuna turned to his charioteer and said, “My mouth is dry and my mind is whirling. I feel that we are about to do a bad thing. What good can come of it if brothers kill brothers, if fathers kill their sons? I feel it would be better if did not fight at all, and simply let the other side kill me.”
Arjuna could not decide what to do next. Should he throw down his weapons and let the other side kill him? Should he go forward and kill his friends and relatives? He did not like either choice, yet he must do something.
And his charioteer turned around, and gave him an unexpected answer….
Agni, the ancient Vedic deity of fire, has always appealed to me. But until today, I’d only met Agni through poetry, like this hymn to Agni, the fifth hymn of the third book of the Rig Veda, as translated by Ralph Griffith:
Agni who shines against the Dawns is wakened;
the holy Singer who precedes the sages:
With far-spread luster, kindled by the pious,
the Priest has thrown both gates of darkness open.
Agni has waxed mighty by songs of praise,
to be adored with hymns of those who praise him.
Loving the varied shows of holy Order
at the first flush of dawn, he shines as envoy.
Midst mortal’s homes, Agni has been established,
fulfilling with the Law; Friend, germ of waters.
Loved and adored, the height he has ascended;
the Singer, object of our invocations.
Thus I was pleased to finally see a visual depiction of Agni at the Asian Art Museum this afternoon. He was part of a painting from the Ramayana, protecting Sita during her trial by fire, as imagined by a Balinese artist c. 1850-1900. Since this was a traveling exhibit, photography was not permitted, so I drew a quick sketch of Agni — leaving out Sita, Rama, the army of monkeys, the tongues of fire, and everything else in this detailed painting:
I’ve been compiling a list of religious organizations mostly in Silicon Valley, from San Jose to San Francisco. The middle school class of our congregation visits other faith communities, and this list is designed to be used as a resource to help the class find places to visit.
Even though I was familiar with the work of Harvard’s Pluralism Project, even though I expected a wide diversity of religious traditions, I was still astonished at the religious diversity I found: there are hundreds of faith communities, ranging from Anabaptists to Zoroastrians, within an hour’s drive of our congregation.
Most of the research I did was online. It proved difficult to research some faith communities online, as quite a few do not have Web sites, or they have Web sites that are so outdated you don’t trust them. Yelp proved to an excellent source of information about many faith communities, especially when there were recent reviews (search for “Religious organizations” in a given locale). Youtube also proved a good source of information in a few cases; sometimes faith communities have inadequate Web sites but their members may post videos that provide useful information. One or two congregations had Facebook pages that provided the most recent information.
This list also relies on some real-world research. Our middle school class has visited some of these congregations, as noted on the list below. I also relied a lot on word-of-mouth information — people telling me about some faith community that they knew about, or had friends in, or belonged to.
Perhaps the most difficult part of making this list was figuring out a reasonable way to organize it. I started with the eight major world religions identified in Stephen Prothero’s book God Is Not One; added Zoroastrian, Sikh, Baha’i, and Jain to the list; then finished off with a list of New Religious Movements organized according to the categories in the book New Religious Movements, ed. Christopher Partridge. That takes care of the major divisions. It was more difficult to know how to categorize sub-groups within Christianity and Islam. Christianity is arguably the most diverse of the major world religions, and I did the best I could based on various scholarly reference works. Islam was also challenging to categorize, and I finally decided to use the categories from the Salatomatic Web site.
If you live in Silicon Valley, I’d love it if you looked over the list — then let me know if you see any errors or obvious omissions.
Moksha Patam is the classic board game from India (on which “Chutes and Ladders” is based). This game symbolizes the journey through life, and presents Hindu ideas of reincarnation, various virtues, etc.
Back in 2010, Sudha, a blogger living in Mumbai, wrote an excellent post on “Param Pada Sopanam,” another name for the same basic game, saying in part:
“Traditionally, Parama Pada Sopanam is played on the night of Vaikuntha Ekadashi (the 11th day after the new moon in the Tamil month of Margazhi). Many Hindus believe that the door to Vaikuntha, the abode of Lord Vishnu, will be wide open to welcome the devout and the faithful. Hindus also believe that dying on Vaikuntha Ekadashi will take them directly to the abode of Vishnu, liberating them from the cycle of rebirth. On this day, the devout stay up all night fasting and praying and playing the game helps them pass the time till dawn, when the fast is broken.”
I first ran across Moksha Patam in the old Holidays and Holy Days curriculum. However, that was in another UU congregation, and in my current congregation, the Holidays and Holy Days curriculum is missing Moksha Patam. So I went looking for a version online.
Note that the squares at the heads of the snakes have the name of a Hindu demon — or the name of a person who is, in Hindu stories, bad or evil — these squares also have the name of a vice, or bad quality, in parentheses. Traditionally, landing on one of these squares would provide an opportunity to tell a little something about the demon or person — thus incorporating Hindu stories into the playing of the game.
I particularly like the fact that no skill is involved in playing this game — only random chance. Perhaps this implies that there is nothing we can do to escape the endless cycle of rebirths; it is all chance….
Updates: After reading Erp’s comment below, I checked on Wikipedia, and discovered that game boards do vary in size. Wikipedia also points out that this game (under the name “Snakes and Ladders”) appears in Salman Rushdie’s book Midnight’s Children. Here’s what Rushdie says about the game, in the chapter titled “Snakes and Ladders”:
“The moment I was old enough to play board games, I fell in love with Snakes and Ladders. O perfect balance of rewards and penalties! O seemingly random choices made by tumbling dice! Clambering up ladders, slithering down snakes, I spent some of the happiest days of my life. …
“All games have morals; and the game of Snakes and Ladders captures, as no other activity can hope to do, the eternal truth that for every ladder you hope to climb, a snake is waiting just around the corner, and for every snake a ladder will compensate. But it’s more than that; no mere carrot-and-stick affair; because implicit in the game is unchanging twoness of things, the duality of up against down, good against evil; the solid rationality of ladders balances the occult sinuosities of the serpent; in the opposition of staircase and cobra we can see, metaphorically, all conceivable oppositions, Alpha against Omega, father against mother; here is the war of Mary and Musa, and the polarities of knees and nose … [ellipsis in original] but I found very early in my life, that the game lacked one crucial dimension, that of ambiguity — because as events are about to show, it is also possible to slither down a ladder and climb to triumph of the venom of a snake …” — Midnight’s Children (New York: Random House, 2006), p. 160.
There’s a new blog on Indian philosophy called, not surprisingly, The Indian Philosophy Blog. Some of the posts are technical, some of the posts are academic news. But some of the posts, and associated comments, are pretty interesting.
“The politics of outrage and offence, and the struggle to ban and silence competing viewpoints, are antithetical to this long tradition of reasoned debate. They impoverish public discourse and they endanger critique and the kind of truths that depend on critique.”
The comments get even more interesting. There’s a comment from someone in India, there’s discussion of the legacy of colonialism, and more.
Interesting stuff. Definitely a blog that I will be scanning on a regular basis.
Individuals can access educational, spiritual, and cultural resources on their own, independent of congregations. The Chabad movement continues to expand its network of synagogues, minyanim, religious schools, preschools, camps, and college campus houses, and undoubtedly is planning new initiatives. This movement abandoned the typical synagogue financial membership model of “joining” a synagogue for a relationship-based model of involvement. They understood that people who are emotionally connected to a rabbi and community are willing to contribute voluntarily. Chabad’s global reach and its ability to work with families over a lifespan has been a disruptive force for many established synagogues.
I think a key phrase here is “disruptive force.” This is a phrase that comes from the world of business, and it refers to the way that innovation that provides a good-enough product or service can put high-end or excellent products on the defensive and by so doing, completely disrupt an established market. An example of this is Craig Newmark, who developed Craigslist, a Web site that offered largely free classified advertising; in so doing, Newmark disrupted the newspaper business, for newspapers had depended on classified advertising for their financial survival. Arguably, Craigslist isn’t as good as newspaper classified ads — because it’s a free service there are many stupid ads which merely waste one’s time, and of course when one bought a newspaper one also got journalism along with the ads. But Craigslist ads are good enough, and Craigslist has disrupted the newspaper business model by driving newspapers out of the classified ads business.
As much as we’d like to think that religion is free from market forces, in today’s consumer capitalism nothing is free from market forces. And there are disruptive forces acting on religion. Hayim Herring gives the specific example of Chabad as a disruptive force acting on typical synagogues. While Unitarian Universalist congregations rely on a different financial model than do Jewish congregations, we also have disruptive market forces acting on us. Perhaps the most important disruptive force acting on Unitarian Universalist congregations is the religious-fee-for-service business model. Continue reading “Disruptive forces acting on congregations”
We went in to the Bali exhibit at the Asian Art Museum this afternoon, and saw a demonstration of Balinese puppets. The puppeteer enacted a short bit of the Ramayana, weaving in sly references to San Francisco. It was entertaining, funny, beautiful, skillfully done; and the puppeteer slipped in a serious moral message at the end. It was really a quite brilliant mix of religion, entertainment, and the lively arts.
Another in a series of stories for liberal religious kids. This is my adaptation of a hymn from the Rig Veda (book 10, hymn 90). Notes and discussion at the end.
Before the beginning of all things, a giant being named Purusha existed. Purusha had thousands of heads, and thousands of eyes, and thousands of feet. He was huge and embraced the earth on all sides; and at the same time he filled a space only ten fingers wide, the size of the space which holds a human soul. Purusha was the Primeval Man, the man who came before all human beings.
Purusha was everything, all that had once been, and all that which shall be in the future. He was the god of immortality, and he now lives through sacrificial food which humans offer up to him. All beings and creatures make up one quarter of him; the rest of him is immortal life in a world beyond this world. The three quarters of Purusha which are immortal life rose up high, and the remaining one quarter of him remains here on earth.
Before the beginning, Purusha gave birth to his female counterpart, who was named Virat. When she was born, she took the form of an egg. And then Virat in turn gave birth, and she bore her male counterpart, Purusha. Continue reading “The hymn of Purusha”