the promised rant about Hindu deities and their place in neo-eclectic spiritual practice
A long ramble of thoughts I’ve had a lot regarding non-Hindus, including white people, including eclectic practices & attempts to work with Hindu concepts, deities, etc:
1) I often see outsiders mistakenly think that people who follow “polytheistic” religions* have equal relationships with every deity in a given religion, or that we can just cherry pick which ones we pray to and admire. Like “hm today I’m going to think about Saraswati” as if we were choosing a lipstick.
This isn’t the case at all; we respect and honor and pray to different deities at different times, but often have closer and more devotional relationships with select ones, depending on our upbringing and our family lineage. My family worships Lord Shiva. I would also place special importance on our worship of Durga and Ganapati. Of course we honor the rest — we might do prayers to specific deities personally during certain times in our lives or during holidays. When we go to the mandir, we pray to every deity present, of course. But we don’t have an equivalent relationship with them all.
Different Hindus will describe this differently — some interpret these relationships more hierarchically, others are more flexible, still others don’t worry about the philosophies underlying the practice and just practice Hinduism however they were brought up to. My point is, no Hindu is casually trying on worship for different gods based on their mood and then forgetting about it.
A lot of people who were raised with good old Jesus Christ or maybe not much religion at all seem not to grasp these details, and this feeds into a bunch of other misconceptions. These misconceptions often lead to misappropriation, especially when people outside of Hindusim enter into eclectic spiritual practices.
*“polytheist religion” isn’t the best way to talk about Hinduism but that’s an explanation for another time because this is turning into a tangent.
2) To me, the above “mistake” is because of a larger misconception that non-Hindus have about Hindu deities. I think many people’s impression of polytheistic traditions is shaped by the simplistic way that, like, the Greek pantheon is often taught in school — “so and so is the ____ goddess of ___”. It flattens the deities into representations of concepts.
The problem is, this is nothing like the relationship most Hindus have with the gods they are devoted to. We have nicknames for them, we think of them as friends and family in more than one sense, we talk to them as such and think about them sort of like PEOPLE, not just essences of keywords or concepts. Sure, “lord shiva” is the god of “death and rebirth” and “the destroyer”. I love those parts of him, they’re meaningful and real, but that alone doesn’t say enough about the relationship I have with him. I think of him by his nicknames, I don’t think of him as an abstract cardboard cutout or a symbol. The stories about him aren’t just vague and fantastical but often have aspects of, like, amusing anecdotes you hear about a friend. He isn’t like the paternal judgmental sky dad of Christianity, nor is he a two-dimensional shorthand for some kind of idea. I don’t get afraid of him and I don’t think of him as some kind of static figure. I think of him more like a close friend and really wise mentor I respect to an incomprehensibly great extent.
(Side note: I believe we need to be more aware of that difference in perception when we talk about and worship deities from various ancient polytheistic traditions as well; I feel like it’s possible their historical devotees would have had a similarly intimate and playful but reverent and loving relationship with whoever they worshipped. It’s a mistake imo to think of them as flat and representational rather than complex and rounded and even interactive. They are often “"humanized”“ for reasons.)
3) From that misunderstanding, there’s so many things people misunderstand. The idea of ”“nirvana”“ you always hear about, for example, means so much more when you understand it as a devotee attaining complete unity with the vast and intricate personality of their god. Embodying and assimilating into all of their qualities, all of their wisdom, all of their permeability, indistinguishable from each other. The loss of the ego as a total dissolution of the boundary between a soul and divinity at large.
Emotional anecdote time: when my grandmother, mother and I went to our family “guru” to know if my grandfather achieved moksha, he confirmed that he did, and all we could do was sob with joy. We all collapsed and wept and couldn’t say anything. And my relationship with Lord Shiva became so much more complex when it really clicked that my grandfather was one and the same as him, and I therefore had a truly “personal” relationship with and guidance from the god I know, that this person, this spirit I knew and know exists within and as him and is listening to me, open to my access.
It has nothing to do with just some state of bliss that you can just eat pray love your way towards. To reduce our concept of the relationship between divinity, deities, and souls to a blandly articulated state of “oneness” achievable by any Becky who spends enough time meditating with her Lululemon mala beads burns me up. It’s so reductive and even mistakenly individualist. It misses so much about the context and practice and livedness of those ideas and what they really mean.
4) Similarly, admiration or good intentions don’t mean much when white folks take images of deities and do not learn the rituals and procedures of their worship. I’ve seen white folks tattooing deities on parts of their bodies that are downright disrespectful and if these people even talked to one Hindu they would’ve known that. They would have been advised about how to convey respect. You can’t just have them lying around and pray to them however you like. There’s specific ways to honor them and specific ways to disrespect them. One kind of funny example — some would find it impolite to partake in marijuana in front of Lord Shiv without /offering him some/. Similarly there are other gods you would not do that in front of at all.
Different deities, to be truly honored, require different /detailed/ types of worship, procedures completed beforehand (cleaning, etc), placement in the home, bhajans and mantras, certain days of the week…This is why Hinduism gets called a “way of life” and not just a religion. It’s so beyond buying a Ganesh statue and saying some random om phrases you found on Google when you feel like it. I see too many crystal workers buying “Shiva lingam” and leaving it on a shelf like it’s just another rock or mineral. To a Hindu, a Shiva lingam is a literal representation of him and should be honored and worshipped as such through placement, display and offerings.
5) the final point and the cause of all the above: these are ALL THINGS that would be COMMON KNOWLEDGE and easily avoided if those who were interested in working with Hindu deities and beliefs didn’t seem to always, always sequester themselves from any actual, born and raised, practicing Hindus. I see so many white people practicing Hinduism in their own little groups without us. We don’t do that. Hinduism is situated within collectivist cultural values and the context of family and community is intrinsic to its practice. There are mandirs that /I/ feel uncomfortable praying at because they seem to be nearly exclusively for white convert Hindus. That’s not okay.
There is a LOT of debate about the openness or closedness of Hinduism. I’ve met scholars and priests who believe Hinduism is strictly carried through blood and family and in fact believe certain knowledge, ancient scriptures and such, are similarly carried through this blood connection. My grandmother loves introducing people to our religion – it really pleases her when they take interest – but she always says that our connectivity and “soul power” as she puts it is unique to us because of our bloodline and heritage. Our “dharm” – another word that white Hindus seem to completely misunderstand. Not that it’s better or more important than other people’s/peoples’, but it’s only ours and innately ours. All paths lead to the same place, all can seek god in their own way according to our beliefs, but this path is our way to reach the divine and it is our duty to follow it and live our lives this way because it is inherent to who we are.
I’ve also heard from Hindus who interpret the above to mean that Hinduism is a VERY open system that is downright compatible with other religions. I don’t think those two interpretations are even mutually exclusive or diametrically opposed. My opinion continues to develop the more I connect and learn.
My real point is, if you experience an attraction to our beliefs or gods, learn about them WITHIN our communities rather than without them. Read what we write about. Talk to our elders. Come to the same mandir we go to if you want to see what our communal worship looks like. Observe our practices before deciding to integrate pieces of it into your own. Know that you may be misconstruing the foundational concepts behind our worship and behind the explanations of our deities if you take them out of the context they have always been a part of. Understand that our culture is a collective one and we worship in families and communities as much as we worship alone.
And most of all, have /respect for us/ as human beings – don’t separate the people who practice a religion from your interest in the religion itself. How can you say you respect a tradition when you have no respect for the people who have given it life for centuries? Can you really, casually chit chat about the “connection” you feel with a deity when all you did was read their Wikipedia page? When you’re not interested in connecting with the people who have constructed their lives around a tradition of expressing love and respect for that deity? When you don’t want to learn more about that deity from those people?
I believe our deities are open to working with and inspiring non-Hindus, absolutely. I often recommend non-Hindus introduce themselves to or research or meditate on given aspects or forms of them. I believe they can impart really important knowledge to various people, particularly some marginalized groups, and I want them to be appreciated for that. Hinduism has core beliefs and concepts that can be transformational, especially in relation to gender and compassion and unity and various forms of distress, especially for those who have been ingrained with the toxic aspects of Western culture and Western religion. I want people to be able to participate and engage with our traditions because of that. However, meditating on a deity isn’t the same as devoted worship, and that should be understood – you’ll simply never have the same access to Hindu deities if you aren’t Hindu. You aren’t going to get the same out of worship for them, even if they point you in the right direction. If you understand this and choose to incorporate them into your worship anyway, I ask that you research and understand their context. Don’t go buying statues and posters without reading about or talking to a Hindu about how to properly respect them at even a basic level. If you choose to worship our deities within a communal setting, there had better be South Asian Hindus present and actively engaged with and leading the environment. Actual, practicing, regular Hindus going about their lives, not “gurus” who have figured out how to make a buck off of pandering to white exotification.
I find my traditions to be so rich and stimulating on intellectual as well as spiritual levels. I just wish people would truly engage with them instead of USING them in the superficial way I see very often. Particularly our beautiful, wise, imperfect, friendly, three-dimensional deities. I am tired of seeing a treatment of them that is at best reductive/underutilizing and at worst disrespectful. They deserve so much more than that, as do we.
Lohla this is so well put!!!
I should be keeping this for a Hinduism Week or something, but this feels very illuminating and should be shared sooner rather than later.
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