In 1997 I was slogging through my first year of university, running around like a frantic idiot, Coke or a coffee always in hand and rarely able to relax. One day I started browsing the leisure class listings and noticed that a beginning yoga course was offered at a time when my schedule was free; it seemed very fortuitous, since I’d heard that yoga practice could improve stamina and reduce stress. I enjoyed the class very much and, on discovering that I couldn’t repeat the course the following semester, I asked my instructor for suggestions on keeping up my practice alone. She recommended the book that she used as an adjunct to her teaching: The Śivānanda Guide to Yoga.
I bought a copy and read through it; I knew so little about Hinduism, I didn’t realise that many of the simple practices recommended – vegetarian diet and regular meditation, for instance – were actually religious in nature, intended to strengthen the body and mind in support of the journey to the Divine. I adopted some of the habits recommended, but after some months, developed serious issues with depression and quit every activity I’d formerly enjoyed, including yoga.
In 2009, I moved to Canada; finding myself again depressed and listless, with numerous problems that seemed beyond resolution, I remembered the feelings of grace, poise, and calm that my yoga practice had once given me and thought that resuming the exercises might help. So I checked out that same guide from the library and read it again, more carefully this time, and with a greater knowledge and experience of world religions than I’d once had. When I reached the section on mantra meditation, I suddenly realised that the mantra I’d chanted years before – oṃ namaḥ śivāya – was not merely a pattern “often chosen by those of an ascetic nature,”but an invocation of God Śiva. (What a joke on me it was; as a Pagan teacher, I’d strictly warned my students against using chants or spells in unknown languages, without having a reliable translation of the meaning. I should have used my own previous behaviour, of reciting Sanskrit syllables without understanding them in the slightest, as an example.)
With the Internet now available at home to enrich my learning, I began to learn more about this Lord Śiva fellow, whose image seemed so popular in New Age shops and of whom I knew almost nothing, except that he was blue or smoke-coloured or something. The more I learned, the more I loved, and I started some simple devotional practices to Him based upon my readings. As my religious life came to include more of Hinduism, I wondered if there might be space for Hindu ways in my already-far-too-complex religious path, or even if I might “really be” Hindu. So I determined to seek out the core of the Hindu religion.
Well, to try and summarise the religious thoughts of about one billion people in simple codified form is kind of like trying to catch rainwater in a colander, but I did find a statement of nine core beliefs that many Hindus share. Most of them made sense to me, except for this mystifying matter:
Hindus believe in the four Vedas, the most ancient of sacred Hindu texts.
I vaguely remembered hearing about “Vedas” at some point during my schooling and had some nebulous idea that they might be to Hindus what the Bible was to Christians: an explication of faith and theology for the religion’s members. And I thought that, if “Vedas” were revered by Hindu folks, then I ought to study and understand them. (It also annoyed me that I’d graduated university with an anthropology degree, without ever having heard of the sacred texts of an entire major religion.)
Trying to grasp Hinduism by reading the Vedas is like approaching Judaism through the Qabala; the Vedic texts reveal the mysteries of devotion and sacrifice to practicing priests and aren’t intended as a layman’s guide to religion. But despite my ignorance, and though I later discovered that the English translation I’d read was a poor and biased one, Veda was still a treasure beyond words. Here is where I read the name of Indra for the first time, and when I started researching information about this God, certain events in my past – as well as certain experiences at the time – were made clear to my understanding.
This is the roundabout route on which I found Indra, and it interests me that, in the last few years, a heated debate has arisen over whether yoga is Hindu, whether it should be taught to non-Hindus at all. While I can’t outright condemn anyone who wants to learn yoga exercise solely to enrich their health – I’d be an unbearable hypocrite if I did – I now know, and assert in such arguments, that yoga is a set of practices by which the seeker yokes themselves to the Divine, willingly undertaking certain disciplines in order to grow closer to God. Yoga is Hindu, in both origin and practice, and when I hear some people fearfully argue that it’s a “slippery slope” to Hinduism and should be avoided by serious, faithful practitioners of other religions, I admit to giggling softly in reply. Practicing yoga exercises won’t automatically make you a Hindu, but it might just be the start of a long and revelatory journey, as it was for me.
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