Answering God’s call

December 7, 2008

Hundreds of thousands of Muslims begin the holy Hajj pilgrimage, following a route the Prophet Muhamad took 1,400 years ago. In Reuters, a report.

haj2Hundreds of thousands of Muslims began the hajj pilgrimage on Saturday, heading to a tent camp outside the holy city of Mecca to follow a route Prophet Muhammad took 14 centuries ago.

Over two million Muslim pilgrims arrived this week in Mecca, where authorities have mounted a vast security operation to avert any militant attacks, deadly stampedes or political activities that could embarrass Saudi Arabia.

“It’s a beautiful feeling, very beautiful, especially when you see the Kaaba,” said a Moroccan woman called Sanna after visiting the ancient cubic shrine at the center of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. “I hope I can return again, with God’s help.”


Also, screenwriter Kamran Pasha (his upcoming novel on Aisha, the young wife of the Prophet Muhammad is due out in April) is blogging about his personal Hajj journey. Click here to read more.

Pakistan’s Sufis preach faith and ecstasy

December 3, 2008

The believers in Islamic mysticism embrace a personal approach to their faith and a different outlook on how to run their country’s government. Nicholas Schmidle in the Smithsonian:

A Sufi pilgrim dances at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, in Sehwan Sharif, Pakistan. Photograph by Aaron Huey

A Sufi pilgrim dances at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, in Sehwan Sharif, Pakistan. Photograph by Aaron Huey

In the desert swelter of southern Pakistan, the scent of rose­water mixed with a waft of hashish smoke. Drummers pounded away as celebrants swathed in red pushed a camel bedecked with garlands, tinsel and multihued scarfs through the heaving crowd. A man skirted past, grinning and dancing, his face glistening like the golden dome of a shrine nearby. “Mast Qalandar!” he cried. “The ecstasy of Qalandar!”

The camel reached a courtyard packed with hundreds of men jumping in place with their hands in the air, chanting “Qalandar!” for the saint buried inside the shrine. The men threw rose petals at a dozen women who danced in what seemed like a mosh pit near the shrine’s entrance. Enraptured, one woman placed her hands on her knees and threw her head back and forth; another bounced and jiggled as if she were astride a trotting horse. The drumming and dancing never stopped, not even for the call to prayer.

I stood at the edge of the courtyard and asked a young man named Abbas to explain this dancing, called dhamaal. Though dancing is central to the Islamic tradition known as Sufism, dhamaal is particular to some South Asian Sufis. “When a djinn infects a human body,” Abbas said, referring to one of the spirits that populate Islamic belief (and known in the West as “genies”), “the only way we can get rid of it is by coming here to do dhamaal.” A woman stumbled toward us with her eyes closed and passed out at our feet. Abbas didn’t seem to notice, so I pretended not to either.


Dalai Lama: sex=trouble

November 30, 2008

The Dalai Lama pitches celibacy as a better way of life. AFP has a story [via Breitbart]

It's all in the mind

It's all in the mind

The Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual and temporal leader, on Friday said sex spelt fleeting satisfaction and trouble later, while chastity offered a better life and “more freedom.”

“Sexual pressure, sexual desire, actually I think is short period satisfaction and often, that leads to more complication,” the Dalai Lama told reporters in a Lagos hotel, speaking in English without a translator.

He said conjugal life caused “too much ups and downs.

“Naturally as a human being … some kind of desire for sex comes, but then you use human intelligence to make comprehension that those couples always full of trouble. And in some cases there is suicide, murder cases,” the Dalai Lama said.

He said the “consolation” in celibacy is that although “we miss something, but at the same time, compare whole life, it’s better, more independence, more freedom.”


God for the godless: Salman Rushdie’s secular sermon

November 12, 2008

David Van Biema in Time:

rushdieThe fatwa – now more or less lifted – did not sour Rushdie from his conviction that religion is necessary to writers, if only because it provides the only available language on certain topics. “I think that a lot of us, whether we are religious or not – there are no words to express some things except religious words,” he said. “For instance, ‘soul.” I don’t believe in an afterlife or heaven or hell, yet there isn’t a secular word for that feeling that we are not only flesh and blood. Whether you’re religious or not you may find yourself obliged to use language shaped by religion.”

Under the prompting of Gauri Viswanathan, a Columbia professor of English and Comparative literature, Rushdie expressed a deep appreciation for the outward expressions of faith. “I grew up looking out my window at Kings College chapel [the iconic building at Cambridge University, which Rushdie attended],” he says. “And its hard not to believe in the capacity of religion to create beauty” with that sight in his memory. He then expressed wonder that, as a non-Christian secularist, he was invited in 1993 to preach a sermon in that same chapel and did. “There are moments in your life that surprise you,” he said.


Fiery, fanatical and a sanyasin to boot

November 9, 2008

Until her arrest in Surat on October 10 for her alleged involvement in the Malegaon bomb blasts, you would almost certainly have not heard of Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur. In Tehelka, Rana Ayyub profiles this 37-year-old daughter of a RSS idealogue.

sadhviAFTER A string of multi-city bomb blasts ascribed to the Students’ Islamic Movement of India, the arrest of Sadhvi Purnachetnagiri aka Pragya Singh Thakur has provided yet another lead, though faint, into the country’s right-wing extremist terror modules. Pragya was arrested in Surat by the Mumbai police Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) on October 10 for her alleged involvement in the September 29 blasts in Malegaon in Maharashtra’s Nashik district. Five people were killed in the blast that happened on the eve of Id; another blast in the Gujarat town of Modasa killed a boy but the Gujarat police have exonerated Pragya and her associates of involvement in the case. Pragya has been a key and apparently popular member of various saffron organisations across the country since the mid-90s, although she entered the limelight only after her arrest. Now in judicial custody till November 17, she has so far provide the ATS little to go on, despite having undergone brain-mapping and polygraph tests. The results of a narcoanalysis test conducted on her recently have not as yet been disclosed.


Amarnath pilgrimage: Praying for ice

August 19, 2008

July and August are pilgrimage months in Kashmir. Will global warming — and terrorism — make things too hot at journey’s end? Peter Manseau in Search Magazine:

Pilgrims going to Amarnath cave

Pilgrims going to Amarnath cave

Amarnath cave ice formation and (inset) classic example of a stone Shiva symbol

Amarnath cave ice formation and (inset) classic example of a stone Shiva symbol

Long before people called themselves Muslims or Hindus, long before they fought and died over these or any labels and turned a paradise into what Bill Clinton, Salman Rushdie and others have called “the most dangerous place in the world,” water dripped and froze inside the Amarnath Cave at the heart of Kashmir.

It began as a trickle, but became a steady stream. Water leaked through as the July sun hit the Himalayan snowpack above, only to turn to ice again as is entered the 135-foot high grotto that maintains a wintry temperature deep into the summer. There the water gathered to form first a frozen stick, then a frozen wall, then something more mysterious, a six-foot-tall mound of ice that seemed almost ready to walk away. As July turned to August and the cave temperature rose, the ice formation melted, as they do. But the next year it formed again; it always did.

It’s impossible to say how long the ice came and went hidden within the Amarnath Cave before people happened along to give it meaning. According to legend, a Muslim shepherd named Malik discovered it in the twelfth century. Kashmir at the time was an interreligious land even at the individual level. It was not unusual that this follower of Islam had spent a fair amount of time in Hindu temples, and so when he saw the column of ice-slightly taller than it was wide, with its rounded top like the crown of a man’s head-he knew just what it looked like: A lingam, the phallic symbol of the god Shiva, Hindu deity of creation and destruction.

[Published six times a year in Washington, DC, SEARCH is a non-profit, non-partisan, non-sectarian magazine exploring the intersection of science, religion, and culture.]


Cult & controversy in Asaram’s ashram

August 11, 2008

Controversy isn’t new at the Asaram Bapu trust reports Syed Khalique Ahmed in The Indian Express. The death of four boys in the past one month is yet another milestone in a fairly sordid saga of allegations of land-grabbing and wrong doing.

For the phenomenally influential religious guru, Asaram Bapu, his 37-year-long spiritual career had never been a cakewalk and the four mysterious deaths in his ashramss here and in Madhya Pradesh and the public ire he has been courting are only the latest that he hopes to shrug off.

His spiritual domain is spread across 300 ashrams throughout India, as also in the US, with lakhs of his followers and admirers flooding his commune with funds. Sixty-seven-year-old Bapu has even delivered a speech at the parliament of world religions.

Few controversies connected with his ashrams have invited media attention the way the deaths of four children in his two ashrams — in Ahmedabad and Chhindwara — did in just one month. His ashram, in both the cases, is facing serious problems, with investigators finally getting down to grilling inmates of the ashrams in connection with the deaths.


Mother Teresa: ‘I feel unwanted by God’

August 5, 2008

A collection of the writings of the Saint of Calcutta show her to have been unfazed by poverty and criticism but plagued by doubts about her faith. From The Times:

On her first day in Calcutta’s slums: “At 8am Veronica [Gomes, her guide to the poor areas] and I went out. We started at Taltala and went to every Catholic family. The people were pleased but children were all over the place. And what dirt and misery, what poverty and suffering. I spoke very little: I just did some washing of sores, and dressings, gave medicine to some. The old man lying on the street – all alone sick and dying – I gave him carborsone and water, and he was so strangely grateful…

“We went to Taltala bazaar, and there was a very poor woman dying, I think of starvation more than TB. What poverty. What actual suffering. I gave something that will help her to sleep, but the woman is longing to have some care. I wonder how long she will last – [her temperature] was just 96 degrees (35.56C). She asked a few times for confession and Holy Communion. I felt my own poverty there, too, for I had nothing to give that poor woman. I did everything I could, but if I had been able to give her a hot cup of milk, her cold body would have got some life. I must try and be somewhere close to the people where I could easily get at the things.”

[An edited extract from "Mother Teresa Come Be My Light: The private writings of the Saint of Calcutta", edited by Brian Kolodiejchuk.]


Bangle law or bungle law?

July 29, 2008

A Sikh teenage schoolgirl has just won the right to wear a kada to a school that has a strict ‘no-jewellery’ policy. This is a victory for British tolerance, writes Jasdev Singh Rai in The Guardian’s Comment is Free.

The Sikh schoolgirl Sarika Watkins-Singh’s victory at the high court to wear her “kara”, the steel bangle worn by Sikhs, is a reflection of British tolerance and a common-sense approach to different cultural communities when compared to the more fundamentalist approach of countries such as France. Twenty-first century France still cannot come to grips with a turban-wearing schoolchild. But it is sad that Sarika had to go to the court at all. As her solicitor said, each generation seems to have to go through the same struggles.

All the articles and practices of Sikhs signify the various concepts of Sikh philosophy. The articles were enjoined to the Sikhs by the gurus, particularly the 10th and last of the gurus some 300 years ago. The Sikhs have dutifully maintained them.


For a history of previous cases of religious symbols at work or school, click here.

TV swami offers a cure for all ills

June 14, 2008

In The Guardian, Randeep Ramesh goes to Haridwar to meet Yoga evangelist Swami Ramdev:

At 5am beneath the Shivalik hills in northern India, Swami Ramdev sits cross-legged swaddled in saffron robes commanding the rapt attention of 500 devotees of his brand of yoga. The crowd is made up mostly of middle-class Indians, many suffering from chronic conditions for which traditional medicine has little to offer but comfort.

Each “patient” has paid 7,000 to 40,000 rupees (£90 to £500) to be among the first to spend a week at the swami’s newest venture: a village of 300 bungalows offering spiritual retreat in the shadow of eucalyptus trees.

Swami Ramdev’s pitch is that pranayama, the ancient Indian art of breath control, can cure a bewildering array of diseases. “Asthma, arthritis, sickle-cell anaemia, kidney problems, thyroid disease, hepatitis, slipped discs – and it will unblock any fallopian tubes,” he tells his audience in the yoga village, who line up to have their blood tested and receive herbal remedies.


The ‘Daughters of the Faith’

April 20, 2008

Asiya Andrabi founded the notorious moral police Dukhtaran-e-Millat (Daughters of the Faith) in Kashmir. In The Times of India, Sarmila Ganesan meets her in Srinagar:

When Asiya Andrabi first went to buy a burqa at the age of 19, the shopkeeper told her she was too young for one. He didn’t even stock much burqa material then as it was hardly in demand. Today, seated in her in-laws’ home in downtown Srinagar, covered from head to toe in a thick black burqa, the 45-year-old says things are different now. In many ways, she feels responsible for this change. “Islam has instructed women to cover themselves completely,” says Andrabi, who is wearing white gloves and dark glasses too. A few years ago, Andrabi, along with other burqa-clad women, had sprayed “harmless” paint on the faces of Muslim women who were not veiled. Subsequently, she was arrested. For being a threat to national security.

“What has morality got to do with a country’s security?” asks Andrabi, president of a separatist organisation she formed in 1981 called Dukhtaran-e-Millat (Daughters of the Faith), which was banned in 2002 under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. She believes that Kashmir is a part of Pakistan.


Searching for the Dalai Lama

April 5, 2008

In The New York Times, Holly Morris, the author of “Adventure Divas: Searching the Globe for a New Kind of Heroine,” reviews “The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama,” by Pico Iyer.

Do you get the impression that the Dalai Lama is not exactly the brightest bulb in the room?” a journalist asked Pico Iyer after both men left a speaking event by His Holiness. We know what he’s getting at. At a certain angle, the chirpy aphorisms, the generous stream of book forewords, the Hollywood entourage, all conspire to cast a hue of superficiality that few global pop icons escape.

In that light, it is possible to forget that the Dalai Lama is, in fact, a titan: a head of state, a doctor of metaphysics, a prolific author, a hyperrealist, a newshound, a godhead to the Tibetan people and the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize – a man who embodies a “simplicity that lies not before complexity but on the far side of it.”


Previously on AW:

Tibet isn’t a Buddhist litmus test

April 2, 2008

Deepak Chopra at The Huffington Post:

As the violence in Tibet has continued, the Dalai Lama issued a stern statement that he could not align himself with insurrection in his home country. Buddhism rests on several pillars, one of which is nonviolence. Tibet quickly became a kind of Buddhist litmus test. How much pain and oppression can you stand and still exhibit loving kindness and compassion? I wonder if that’s really fair. The Tibetans face a political crisis that should be met with political action. Whatever that action turns out to be, nobody should be seen as a good or bad Buddhist, anymore than defending your house from an intruder tests whether a Christian is living by the precepts of Jesus.


The Monk who has not read the Gita

March 10, 2008

He has been described as the ‘Monk on a Motorcycle’ and is known to play Frisbee and dance at discos. Shekhar Gupta talks to Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, an Indian monk with a wide following, on NDTV 24×7:

sadhguruvasudev.jpgQ: So what makes you different? What is it that sets you apart?

“See, I don’t come from any scholarship. I have not read the Vedas or the Upanishads. I just confess I have not read the Gita.”

Q: You ride a motorbike, you wear designer glasses, you drive a Land Rover, and you dance at disco parties. Is it part of your brand image? Or is it to say that you can be normal and spiritual (at the same time)?

“Being spiritual is being normal. If you are not spiritual, you can be handicapped. What you call spiritual is an experience that is beyond the physical.”


Soul spa

February 17, 2008

The gurus of permissiveness are missing, so are the scandals. The Osho meditation resort in Pune is a sign of a cult that has grown up. Sunanda Mehta in The Indian Express: 


The labels “commune” and “ashram” have been unceremoniously dropped, Ma and Swami shrugged off as prefixes. Life-size photographs of the man with the flowing beard and piercing eyes, Rajneesh Chandra Mohan Jain aka Acharya Rajneesh aka Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh aka Osho, have disappeared from the walls and corners. The swirl of maroon robes remains-you still have to wear one to enter-as does the initiatory ritual of an HIV test. But the Pune ashram of the man who preached a path from sex to superconsciousness is a sanitised space-the Osho International Meditation Resort.

The easy thing, of course, would be to succumb to the notion, as well as the opinion of many an old-timer, that in its compulsion to keep up with the times, the centre has somewhat misplaced its soul. The trappings of modern-day luxury that dot the 40-acre complex, from the huge swimming pool to the Jacuzzis, from the tennis courts to the restaurants, will bear you out. The drug orgies that shocked Pune in the ’90s don’t make headlines anymore and there is more than a whiff of conformism in the description of the place as “the only place in the world that combines meditation with resort facilities”.


The Beatles and the Yogi: Rishikesh, India, 1968

February 7, 2008

And on the On Faith page of

David Lynch’s Guru and His Art

One of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s biggest fans and followers was neo-noir film director David Lynch, who has authored films such as Blue Velvet and Lost Highway that explore something that seems more like subterranean consciousness. David runs a charity that aims to teach children TM and he has given many talks on the benefits of meditation.



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