Jahnabi Barooah

Religion, Truth, Love and Beauty

My Intellectual and Spiritual Journey at HDS

I was happy to be asked to share a snippet of my intellectual and spiritual journey at Harvard Divinity School.

It was not even half past two in the morning when my alarm went off. I had barely enough time to get ready to attend the 3:30 a.m. vigil at St. Joseph’s Abbey, a Trappist monastery located in Spencer, MA. I was there with a group of students from HDS on a 2-day silent retreat. This was part of a weeklong immersive Buddhist-Christian retreat offered by the divinity school as a J-term course, “Comparative Monasticisms.” Earlier in the week, we had spent some time at the New England Buddhist Vihara (a Sanskrit word that means “monastery”) and at the Empty Bell, a Buddhist-Christian retreat center in Northampton.

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St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Mass.

I recently had the great blessing of going on a week-long Buddhist-Christian monastic retreat with friends from the Harvard Divinity School. We started at the New England Buddhist Vihara in Grafton, a small community of the most adorable Sri Lankan Theravadin monks, then spent a day at the Empty Bell, a Buddhist-Christian retreat center in Northampton, and concluded our retreat at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer. Below are some photos that I took at St. Joseph’s Abbey:

St. Joseph's Abbey Church

St. Joseph’s Abbey Church     

St. Joseph's Abbey retreat center

St. Joseph’s Abbey retreat center

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Magnificent cross outside the gift shop

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Stained glass inside the church

Is that the sun or the moon in the sky? :)

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Oh look, how beautiful!

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:)

How Kāmadeva became bodiless and ethics of killing a woman

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m reading the Bālakāṇḍa, the first volume of the seven-volumed Rāmāyaṇa this winter break. I’ve read 32 cantos so far; there are 76 in total. Below are two narratives that I thought were interesting enough to highlight on this blog:

1. The disembodiment of Kāmadeva:

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Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa (left), and Kāmadev with his bow (right). Credit: ignca.nic.in

Do you know the story (or stories) behind how Kāmadeva (the god of love, or sensual pleasure) became bodiless? The story I grew up with goes the following way: Śiva is engrossed in deep meditation. Kāmadeva interrupts him. Śiva opens his eyes in anger and immediately, Kāmadeva is reduced to ashes.

Thus, I was intrigued to find a slightly different version of the story recorded in the Rāmāyaṇa. Here it is as Viśvāmitra, a wise sage, narrates to Rāma:

“He was the embodied Kandārpa [meaning: inflamer even of a god], called Kāma by the wise. That fool assailed the lord of gods, Sthāṇu, prior to his marriage, who was engaged in austerities here, intent upon his vow. The great god, leaving with the host of Maruts, responded by roaring, ‘Hum!’ And, delight of the Raghus, Kāma was burned up by his terrible eye, so that all the limbs withered from the fool’s body. When the great god burned him, he destroyed his entire body. In this way Kāma was rendered bodiless by the lord of gods in his wrath. From that time onward, Rāghava, he has been known as Anaṅga, the disembodied . . . .” (Bālakāṇḍa 22:10-15; 153)

2. The ethics of killing a woman:

One of the first tasks that Viśvāmitra charges Rāma with is to kill Tāṭakā, a formidable demoness. This is how he convinces him of the righteousness of killing a woman:

Rāma kills Tāṭakā, as Lakṣmaṇa and Viśvāmitra (?) watch. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Rāma kills Tāṭakā, as Lakṣmaṇa and Viśvāmitra (?) watch. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“Therefore, Rāghava, for the sake of cows and brāhmans, you must kill this utterly dreadful and wicked yaksha woman whose valor is employed for evil purposes. No man but you in all the three worlds can kill this accursed creature, delight of the Raghus. Nor, best of men, should you be softhearted about killing a woman. A king’s son must act for the welfare of the four great social orders. This is the immemorial rule for all men charged with the burden of kingship. Kakutstha, you must kill this unrighteous creature, for there is no righteousness in her. For it is said, protector of men, that long ago Śhakra killed Mantharā, the daughter of Virocana, who wished to destroy the earth. And long ago, Rāma, the wife of Bhṛgu, Kāvya’s mother, firm in her vows, who wished to rid the world of Indra, was killed by Viṣṇu. These and many other great and excellent men killed women who set set in the ways of unrighteousness.” (Bālakāṇḍa 24:13-19; 160-162)

Here I pause to wonder: why are demonesses always depicted as hideous (physically, I mean) in our mythologies? Why don’t we see conventionally beautiful woman who are wicked? Take the case of Tāṭakā. Initially, she was beautiful, strong and righteous. In fact, she was given as a boon by the god Brahma. It was only after she was cursed by the sage Agastya that she came an evil, ugly, man-eating demoness.

* Please note that the quotations are from Vālmiki. Rāmāyaṇa. Bālakāṇḍa. Trans. Robert P. Goldman. New York: New York University Press, 2005. Print. Clay Sanskrit Library.

Was Gandhi really opposed to violence?

To be clear, Gandhi was certainly opposed to violence used in retaliation.* But he wasn’t opposed to all forms of violence according to Faisal Devji:

“Gandhi himself had always been clear about the fact that his movement had nothing to do with avoiding violence, but was meant rather to invite and in so doing to convert it. For it was evident to him that unlike violence, which possessed only a negative meaning, violence enjoyed a positive existence and was implied in all action, including the everyday processes of living that wore down the body and eventually destroyed it. Nonviolence, therefore, was meant not to provide some alternative to violence but instead to appropriate and, as the Mahatma himself often said, to sublimate it.” (Devji 7-8)

The Impossible Indian

The Impossible Indian

This is the provocative thesis of Devji’s book, The Impossible Indian: Gandhi and the Temptation of Violence, published by the Harvard University Press in 2012. An Oxford-based historian of modern South Asia, Devji locates the genealogy of Gandhi’s nonviolent political activism not in Tolstoy, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, or amorphous ideas of ahimsa derived from Indic religions, but in the extremely violent 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, which is recognized by some as the first war for Indian independence. From there, he examines the implications of a number of Gandhi’s “political experiments” with violence — his correspondence with Hitler and Jews urging nonviolence, his support of the pan-Islamic Khilafat movement, his desire that the British leave India to anarchy and civil war, among others (8). Since I’m relatively a novice both to Gandhian scholarship, and the literature on modern history of South Asia, I’m not going to attempt a book review here. What I’m interested in doing is pointing out why I find Devji’s reading of Gandhi’s relationship with (non)violence disturbing, yet compelling.

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Sita’s trial by fire, and the birth of poetry

My first semester of graduate school is over. It wasn’t an easy one, especially because I was away from academia for two years. I’m now glad to be at home after a brief sojourn in New York.

I began reading Bālakāṇḍa (Boyhood) — the first of the seven books that comprises Vālmiki’s epic poem Rāmāyaṇa – on the long plane journey from New York to Guwahati (via Amman and Delhi). I’m reading the series that has been edited and translated by Robert P. Goldman, Sheldon Pollock and their group of scholars; it’s a bilingual edition and contains the Sanskrit text in transliteration on the left-hand page and an English translation on the right-hand page. I’d heartily recommend to all aspiring scholars and lovers of the Rāmāyaṇa. (If you’re unfamiliar with the Rāmāyaṇa, I recommend reading the Wiki entry before reading the rest of the blog post.)

My own love affair with the Rāmāyaṇa began rather recently when I wrote a paper on it for a course on the Hindu worlds. In that paper I did a close reading of the scene of Sītā’s agniparīkṣā (trial by fire) in three influential Rāmāyaṇas – Vālmiki’s Rāmāyaṇa, Kampan’s Irāmāvatāram and Tulsīdās’ Rāmcaritmānas. I was familiar with the Rāmāyaṇa — the story of Rāma — from a very young age. You can say I grew up with it. Even so, researching for the paper was my first real exposure both to the world of Rāmāyaṇa scholarship (Many Rāmāyaṇas, Questioning Ramayanas) and the beautiful melody of Rāmāyaṇa poetry. Even though I was reading translations, I was spellbound both by the poet’s diction and the ability to evoke a variety of emotions. Just simple phrases like ‘Rama shed hot tears’ caught my attention. (By the way, did you ever notice that we actually shed hot tears?)

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