Hinduism

Sacred cows: Philadelphia Inquirer delves into a Hindu man's love for his 'ragtag herd of cows'

Sacred cows: Philadelphia Inquirer delves into a Hindu man's love for his 'ragtag herd of cows'

“Can being nice to cows save the world?” the Philadelphia Inquirer asks. “A Hindu man in the Poconos would like to believe so.”

On one level, the Inquirer’s feature on Sankar Sastri is simply an interesting read — a human- interest feature about a man with a unusual approach to life.

On another level, it’s a religion story.

The piece excels more at the former than the latter, although it’s not entirely devoid of doctrine.

The lede certainly paints a revealing portrait, albeit one with, um, some smelly stuff on the profile subject’s footwear:

STROUDSBURG, Pa. — Every day, a joyful man in dung-covered boots tries to balance the world's karma by dishing out love, compassion, and the occasional fried Indian delight to his ragtag herd of cows.

Sankar Sastri loves Sri, the shaggy Scottish highlander with eyes like jewels, and adores Lakshmi, a little black Brahman with horns pointing north and south. The mighty Krishna, a tall and hefty Angus, appears to be a favorite, but Sastri said each of his 23 cows is equally beloved at his Poconos sanctuary.

"Ah, Krishna, look at how big you are. You are the boss, Krishna," Sastri said to the cow on a recent cold November morning.

Sastri, 78, is wiry, bespectacled, and constantly smiling, and wears a blazer over his farm clothes while he walks around his 90-acre Lakshmi Cow Sanctuary in Monroe County. Sastri still resembles a college professor, albeit one who fell in mud. He grew up in Chidambaram, by the Bay of Bengal in Southern India, moved to the United States in 1964 for grad school, and spent 28 years teaching engineering  at New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn.

The Inquirer goes on to explain:

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Hindu vs. Muslim in India: The Washington Post covers a battle that's getting worse

Hindu vs. Muslim in India: The Washington Post covers a battle that's getting worse

To listen to some Muslim activists around the world, one would think the only injustices are those happening in Palestine. There’s curiously little outcry about much worse stuff going on in China (as GetReligionista Ira Rifkin has written) and India.

India has 172 million Muslims; home to 10 percent of the world Muslim population and second only to Indonesia and Pakistan. But Indian Muslims –- as well as Sikhs, Christians and other minorities –- are vastly outnumbered by roughly 980 million Hindus. And in recent years, the trends in violence targeting Muslims in India — often fueled by smartphone messages sent through WhatsApp — haven’t been good.

Which is interesting in that India’s Muslims are growing and by 2050, India will surpass Indonesia as the world’s largest Muslim country. Which makes this recent story in the Washington Post about so-called cow vigilantes all the more timely.

Alimuddin Ansari, a van driver, knew the risks. Smuggling beef in India, where the slaughter of cows is illegal in some states, is dangerous work, and Ansari eventually attracted the notice of Hindu extremists in Jharkhand.

One hot day in June 2017, they tracked him to a crowded market. When he arrived with a van full of beef, the lynch mob was waiting.

Reports of religious-based hate-crime cases have spiked in India since the pro-Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, according to new data from IndiaSpend, which tracks reports of violence in English-language media. The data shows that Muslims are overwhelmingly the victims and Hindus the perpetrators of the cases reported.

Riots between religious groups have risen 28 percent between 2014-2017 and this year isn’t looking any better.

Some of the violence in the reported cases centers on cows because Hindus — nearly 80 percent of India’s population — believe the animals are sacred, and many states have laws that protect them from slaughter. Violent “cow vigilante” groups patrol the roads, beating and killing those suspected of smuggling beef.

Which means the unfortunate van driver was one of the victims.

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Separating religious belief from cultural tradition. In real world it's no easy journalistic task

Separating religious belief from cultural tradition. In real world it's no easy journalistic task

Is it possible to separate out religious influences from centuries-old societal customs? And if so, just how does a journalist go about doing this?

This is not an easy task. That goes double for journalists -- perhaps most journalists -- with little exposure to the principles of group dynamics or the psychology of institutional religion.

This may sound like hubris on my part, but I believe that the wide experience gained on the religion beat prepares journalists to better understand humanity’s complex social and psychological formulations -- allowing religion writers and editors to (potentially) better parse the differences.

This recent New York Times story on the semi-isolation of menstruating women in remote western Nepal, causing the death of some, provides a platform for exploring the question.

But first, a quick return to Brazil.

You may recall that a few weeks ago I posted here on the custom of some indigenous Brazilian tribes to murder unwanted children. I tried to explain how from their tribal perspective the practice made sense.

I noted that in their rain forest environment, where food is surprisingly difficult to come by, the children -- fatherless or physically impaired -- were in the tribes’ view being sacrificed for a greater good. That's because they could not contribute to the group's food supply, which tribal leaders deemed an unacceptable burden that threatened the entire group's survival.

I also noted how outrageously obscene the practice seems when considered from a Western mindset rooted in the Abrahamic religious traditions. My point was to illustrate how difficult it is for journalists to put aside their deepest values when covering groups with a vastly different belief set.

The late Huston Smith, the renowned scholar of comparative religion, once wrote, I’m paraphrasing now, that every civilization -- and by every civilization he even included small, semi-nomadic jungle tribes -- is influenced by some spiritual vision of how life is best lived.

I take that to mean that in the Brazilian case, the tribes were following some inner sense of their own notion of right and wrong, even if they did not articulate it in spiritual or religious terms.

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Real dangers in India, Indonesia and Brazil as the religious pendulum swings way right

Real dangers in India, Indonesia and Brazil as the religious pendulum swings way right

Human history may be explained as a pendulum that swings, uninterrupted, between religious and political extremes that have profound consequences for those affected. Our limited time here is no different.

This metaphor for perpetual change is currently swinging to the right in much of the world. A prime reason why, is that the most recent political and religious pull to the left failed to deliver on its promises of economic justice, political equality, and, perhaps most importantly, a sense of inner security and calm craved by all.

Impatient and needy creatures that we are, such failures inevitably shift the underlying gravitational momentum that sets the pendulum in motion. When liberal (pluralistic in outlook, government and rationalism viewed as essentially positive forces) views fail us, large numbers inevitably swing to the right. A similar dynamic occurs when right-leaning ideas (top-down tribalism, traditionalist “cures” for society's ills) leave us dissatisfied and feeling threatened.

The hope is always the same, of course; finding a quick, earthly salvation to get us through the day.

In recent days, several elite media stories about events in India, Indonesia and Brazil have illustrated the problematic impacts of the current global shift to the right. (I’m covering lots of ground here so rather than use wordy block quotes, please click on the links provided to better understand my point.)

All concern religious freedom issues. All illustrate how religious, and ethnic, minorities have been treated miserably by majorities who use religious and political dominance to trample the rights of the powerless.

You could argue that none of this is new, that it’s just more of the pendulum at work. And you’d be correct.

But I cite them here not because they're new under the sun, but simply as a reminder that the human desire to dominate those who are different -- religiously or otherwise -- continues to wreck havoc on the weakest among us.

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Seattle Weekly looks at Namasgay: An attempt to corral some form of LGBTQ spirituality

Seattle Weekly looks at Namasgay: An attempt to corral some form of LGBTQ spirituality

In a blog devoted to religion news coverage, every so often I like to delve into reporting about what is happening among people who are at the edges of faith. This is the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd that longs for some transcendence in life.

I found such a story in the Seattle Weekly, an alternative publication that has a fair amount of coverage of the local gay community.

In its March 14 issue, we hear about an unsuspecting gay newcomer to the Queen City (Seattle’s nickname from 1869-1982) who goes to what he thinks is a Saturday-morning brunch, only to find only alcohol being served as a precursor to an orgy.

The newcomer, business coach Frank Macri (who is the guy dressed in pink in the front of the above photo), realizes that his companions were searching for something, albeit not in the wisest fashion.

He declined (the invite to the orgy) and returned home to ponder the opportunities for people like him in the LGBTQ community to connect. “I noticed that a lot of people feel like they need to have drugs in order to open up to someone and be vulnerable, or they need to have sex in order to feel connected to someone,” Macri said. “And I thought, what if there is a community out there of others who are mindful, compassionate, and wanting to have deeper connections with themselves and other people.”
So shortly thereafter, Macri founded Namasgay, a group for spiritually-minded LGBTQ people who are tired of only connecting with others in clubs or on dating apps. Since its creation last October, the Seattle-based group has expanded to include thousands of members in Oakland, New York, and Chicago. Members meet through a couple of events each month, including meditations, dinners, single mixers, hikes, and yoga sessions.

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Reuters misses some key players in news package about Hindu radicalization of India

Reuters misses some key players in news package about Hindu radicalization of India

Beneath all the sparkle and glitz of 21st century India is another story; an ominous tale of how the leaders of the 1.3 billion-person nation do not want to turn the nation back a century but instead wish to turn it back hundreds of centuries.

In a package about Hindutva; an ideology seeking to establish the primacy of Hinduism in every aspect of Indian life. Which, according to a fascinating package of articles from Reuters, means rewriting Indian history and killing any opponents who get in the way. And which, in the Reuters universe, means Muslims, who comprise 14 percent of India’s population.

However, this approach ignores Christians and Sikhs, both of whom claim millions of adherents who’ve been in India for many centuries (or in the case of the Malabar Christians, since the time of St. Thomas the apostle). For a sample:

NEW DELHI -- During the first week of January last year, a group of Indian scholars gathered in a white bungalow on a leafy boulevard in central New Delhi. The focus of their discussion: how to rewrite the history of the nation…
Minutes of the meeting, reviewed by Reuters, and interviews with committee members set out its aims: to use evidence such as archaeological finds and DNA to prove that today’s Hindus are directly descended from the land’s first inhabitants many thousands of years ago, and make the case that ancient Hindu scriptures are fact not myth.

So what this means is that the Hindu god Ganesh –- a deity with a human body and an elephant head –- was a real person. Or that the divine prince Rama, described in the Indian epic Ramayana, is a historical figure who rescued his wife, Sita, from the demon king Ravana with the help of an army of monkeys.

Interviews with members of the 14-person committee and ministers in Modi’s government suggest the ambitions of Hindu nationalists extend beyond holding political power in this nation of 1.3 billion people - a kaleidoscope of religions. They want ultimately to shape the national identity to match their religious views, that India is a nation of and for Hindus.
In doing so, they are challenging a more multicultural narrative that has dominated since the time of British rule, that modern-day India is a tapestry born of migrations, invasions and conversions. That view is rooted in demographic fact. While the majority of Indians are Hindus, Muslims and people of other faiths account for some 240 million, or a fifth, of the populace.

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Bollywood movie 'Padmaavat' draws mixed coverage on Hindu-Muslim themes

Bollywood movie 'Padmaavat' draws mixed coverage on Hindu-Muslim themes

About 11 years ago, I was in Rajasthan, India, to research some stories for the Washington Times when I decided to take off a morning and visit one of the stupendous hill forts just north of the “pink city” of Jaipur, so named because of its stunning rose-hued buildings. We went to two of them, but it was the 17th century Amer –- or Amber -– Fort that caught my attention for its open air balconies, latticed stonework and gardens.

It was either there or in a similar palace that I heard of jauhar, a form of mass suicide by royal women and their retinues –- to escape abuse and rape -- should their menfolk fail in battle. A guide showed me bloody handprints on the wall from several of these women, left there before they went to die.

A new epic Bollywood film, which ends when the main female lead commits jauhar, is now out. If you wish to understand the Hindu-Muslim enmities that persist to this day in the Indian subcontinent, read up on “Padmaavat” and the mayhem among India’s Hindus before its recent release. According to the Associated Press:

NEW DELHI (AP) — There was anger about a rumored romance between a Hindu queen and a Muslim invader. There were death threats. There were buses burned and grandstanding politicians.
But when the Indian film “Padmaavat” was finally released on Thursday (Jan. 25) amid heavy security and breathless TV coverage, Bollywood’s latest over-the-top offering turned out to be just that: an opulent period drama with multiple songs and dances and a thin storyline and not the slightest hint of the rumored relationship…
The film is based on a 16th-century epic Sufi poem, “Padmavat,” in which a brave and beautiful Rajput queen chose to immolate herself in a ceremonial fire rather than be captured by the Muslim sultan of Delhi, Allaudin Khilji.
Over centuries of retelling, the epic has come to be seen as history, despite little evidence. The main character of Queen Padmini has become an object of veneration for many Rajputs, the clans of former warriors and kings from the western state of Rajasthan.

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New York Times on India: Did Hindu activists make Christmas too dangerous this year?

New York Times on India: Did Hindu activists make Christmas too dangerous this year?

As some of us have gone caroling, Christmas tree decorating or dropped by a candlelit church service lately, we’ve never envisaged a moment where it’d be dangerous to do such activities.

Halfway across the world, in India, they can be life-threatening. 

We're not talking about the scrappy evangelical Protestant missionary groups that have continually given Hindu groups the fits. No, we're referring to Roman Catholics, who aren't known for creating religious tensions there. 

Welcome to the India of 2017. This is a major story, on the global religion scene, but not one American readers see in headlines or on the evening news.

A recent piece in the New York Times provides a door into what is happening.

NEW DELHI -- Tehmina Yadav is a Muslim woman married to a Hindu man. The other night, she was hanging ornaments on a Christmas tree.
In India, a country that is about 80 percent Hindu, Christmas is becoming big business. Airlines play Christmas music, online vendors sell holiday gift baskets, and one especially enterprising young man, Kabir Mishra, rents out a contingent of Hindus dressed as Santa Claus.
“I can provide as many Santas as you want,” he said.
Sitting next to her Christmas tree at home in Delhi, Ms. Yadav said that in India, there was nothing strange about non-Christians celebrating Christmas. Indians have always observed a dizzying number of festivals regardless of religious affiliation, and even though Christians represent only 2.3 percent of the population, Christmas is recognized as a government holiday.

A leftover of its colonial days, the article explains later. But now:

But as far-right Hindu groups have gained traction, India has changed. Christmas has now found itself caught in the cross hairs.

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Bodies trapped on Mt. Everest: The New York Times gets the Hindu details in this tragedy

Bodies trapped on Mt. Everest: The New York Times gets the Hindu details in this tragedy

If, like me, you have read journalist Jon Krakauer's classic book "Into Thin Air" more times than you'd like to admit, and you own the IMAX film "Everest," then the New York Times has a story for you.

This is one of those multi-media deep-dives that has to be seen, and read, to be believed.

Seen? Yes, the images and videos from Mt. Everest are stunning. This includes final looks at experiences in the lives of climbers who died on the mountain and whose stories are at the heart of reporter John Branch's epic "Deliverance From 27,000 Feet."

This is an amazing, multi-media mini-book. But why write about it at GetReligion? As several readers noted, in emails, this is not a religion story. However, this report on how three West Bengali climbers died on the mountain -- and the amazing efforts to retrieve their bodies from the "dead zone" high on Everest -- is in large part driven by details about their Hindu faith. And it's crucial that these climbers were not wealthy people clicking one more item on bucket lists. They were middle-class people whose families made great sacrifices to back their climbs, and then to recover their bodies -- for reasons both spiritual and practical.

If you connect the dots between several passages, you will understand the big themes woven into this must-read feature. Let's focus on Goutam Ghosh, a 50-year-old police officer. As the story notes, the "last time anyone saw him alive was on the evening of May 21, 2016." This passage is long, but essential:

At the time of the tragedy, the climbing season for Everest was almost over. On their way to the summit over the next two nights, the last two dozen of the year’s climbers had come upon Ghosh’s rigid corpse on a steep section of rock and ice.
To get around him, climbers and their guides, sucking oxygen through masks and double-clipped to a rope for safety, stripped off their puffy mittens. They untethered the clips one at a time, stepped over and reached around Ghosh’s body, and clipped themselves to the rope above him.
Some numbly treated the body as an obstacle. ... One climber stepped on the dead man and apologized profusely. Another saw the body and nearly turned around, spooked by the thought of his own worried family back home. Another paused on his descent to hold a one-sided conversation with the corpse stretched across the route.
Who are you? Who left you here? And is anyone coming to take you home?

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