Arjuna’s Choice

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….

To Be Continued….

Source: Chapter 1, the Bhagavad Gita

Agni

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:

Agni, pencil on paper, 3-1/2x5 in.

List of faith communities near Palo Alto

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.

And now: the list! Continue reading “List of faith communities near Palo Alto”

Moksha Patam

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.”

For more cultural background on the game, read the entire post here.

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.

I found that you can play online with up to four players here. I discovered that Kreeda, a games company based in India, makes a version under the name of “Param Pada Sopanam” (scroll down). However, as of this writing, they do not ship to the U.S.

So I made my own version, which we will use in the Sunday school here in Palo Alto. Below are two PDF files that can be printed out, trimmed, and made into a Moksha Patam playing surface.

Moksha Patam game board thumbnail 2

Moksha Patam game board umbnail 1

(N.B.: These links go to my curriculum Web site.)

The rules are the same as for “Chutes and Ladders,” or “Snakes and Ladders.”

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….

Update: 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.

New blog on Indian philosophy

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.

Take, for example, a post on Penguin India’s decision to recall and destroy all copies of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History, in response to right-wing Hindu demands. But, says blogger Andrew Ollett, “India has long traditions of argumentation,” and he concludes that:

“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.

Disruptive forces acting on congregations

In an essay on the Alban Institute Web site titled “Restructuring the Rabbinate,” Hayim Herring writes:

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”

Story from the Ramayana

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.

The hymn of Purusha

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”

Hindu resource

The Association of Grandparents of Indian Immigrants (AGII) is a nonprofit that is “dedicated to the production of audiovisual materials for the families of Indian Immigrants.” Not only is AGII an interesting example of an attempt at identity formation for non-white families; not only does AGII draw on a faith tradition for identity formation; they also offer some excellent online text-based stories on the Indian and Hindu tradition: Kidz Korner: Stories from Indian Mythology.