Vedanta in America: Giving thanks for food

For Thanksgiving, we welcome back ReadTheSpirit Vedanta correspondent Lynne Schreiber. Religious traditions from Asia are blossoming around the world and ReadTheSpirit is working hard to help English-language readers learn from these many different perspectives. The term “Vedanta” refers to spiritual movements that stem from the ancient religious traditions of India.

For this month’s report, Lynne writes about spiritual attitudes toward food.

Enjoying Our Meals—in Gratitude
Feasting on Eastern Wisdom

By Lynne Meredith Schreiber

Food is a linchpin as 2010 turns toward 2011. This time of year, families celebrate and fast—satiate ourselves and deprive ourselves. We say blessings over food. We restrict food according to belief and tradition. From Thanksgiving through New Year’s celebrations in America—food is always at our fingertips.

This year, though, I keep thinking about a line from a yoga master: “I don’t want to ingest suffering.” Vedanta calls us to think about our relationships to food in new ways. Since I began studying Vedanta, I have been thinking in new ways about all the things I do in every single minute—including the foods I choose to eat. Every choice we make leaves an imprint on the world.

We can learn from nature, Vedanta teaches. In the wild, animals follow their own nature—only disrupting their natural patterns under great stress. Living on their own in the natural world, we don’t find obese animals.

The human species is another story. We eat far beyond satiation. We stumble into psychological warfare through the foods we choose to eat. We eat to assuage guilt, to repair broken hearts, to convince people to love us, to reassure. We feed people to feel a sense of power, of comfort, of importance, of nostalgia. Food is so much more than sustenance for humans.

Balancing Food and the Fullness of Life in Vedanta

Earlier this fall, Swami Parthasarathy, the great Vedanta scholar from India, said, “The whole mission in life is to control the mind. If a human being doesn’t control the mind, it can devastate him. The mind is powerful, not stifling, not strangling. Govern it, guide it properly. If you don’t, it will have a disastrous effect.”

Swamiji said, “If you want to control your mind, vegetarian food is the most conducive choice. A mango seed planted in India grows into a beautiful tree. The soil is conducive for growth of the plant. Vegetarianism is conducive for keeping the mind under control.”

Around the world, food flows through our spiritual traditions. There are blessings for every kind of meal, even for snacks. Whole religions grew out of seasonal worship, celebrating harvest and rain, planting and sowing.

Yoga is not a religion, but it bears the same tenets and wise paths of its Eastern origins. Swami Vishnudevananda expressed, in his five essential points of yoga—also known as the five principles for physical and mental health as well as spiritual growth—that proper diet is equal to exercise, breath, relaxation, meditation.

“Besides being responsible for building our physical body, the foods we eat profoundly affect our mind,” he said. “For maximum body-mind efficiency and complete spiritual awareness, yoga advocates a lacto-vegetarian diet. The yogic diet is a vegetarian one, consisting of pure, simple, natural foods which are easily digested and promote health. Simple meals aid digestion.”

Those choosing this path are encouraged to gain understanding of nutrition to balance their spirit. It’s an age-old lesson that modern foodies are adopting in spades: Know where your food comes from, opt for those as close to the source as possible, unadulterated—free of chemicals, pesticides and, as in the above quote, suffering.

Why Vedanta Emphasizes Vegetarian Diet

The cycles of nature, according to Swami Vishnudevananda, begin with the sun—the source of energy for all life on earth. The sun nourishes the plants at the top of the food chain. Animals consuming food at the top of the food chain have the greatest life-promoting properties. “The food value of animal flesh is termed as ‘second-hand’ source of nutrition, inferior in nature,” he said.

“Eat to live, don’t live to eat.” The purpose of eating, said Vishnudevananda, is to supply ourselves with life force, Prana, vital life energy.

Vedanta shows us that often our hunger can go far beyond mere physical sustenance. Look closely: We confuse hunger for emotion. We hunger for love, for acceptance, for respect, for happiness, for power. The main difference between Eastern and Western approaches to consumption is this: Limiting ourselves to “enough” is a deep spiritual value in the East; there are few limits to consumption in Western culture.

Perhaps that is why so many millions are drawn to practice yoga, and as a by-product, begin to stumble into the teachings that created the physical practice of yoga. A good mind-body workout can lead to deeper thoughts about our diet as well.

Celebrating Gratitude at the Holidays

All too often at this time of year, we consume—and we are consumed. When I was an Orthodox Jew, it seemed like our lives revolved around food: the foods we could not eat because they were not kosher, the cities we wanted to live in because they had more kosher restaurants and grocery stores, the foods I’d make for the two weekly elaborate Sabbath meals and the mandate to have meat at the holiday table, symbolic of the richness of the day. The mere prohibition of certain foods led me to over-consume the approved foods, during approved times. Before and after a 25-hour fast like Yom Kippur or Tisha B’Av, we filled up far more than we would have at a normal meal.

The same patterns flow through other religious traditions. Millions of Eastern Orthodox Christians are in the midst of their Nativity Fast now—with major feast days yet to come. Western Christians joke every year about the splurging of American Christmas and the purging of New Year’s diets.

This year, we might all consider the spiritual wisdom of Vedanta concerning food. And, one of those central lessons lies in simply giving thanks. In some Vedic circles, people sign letters and emails: in gratitude. What a fitting idea in the American Thanksgiving week! Although this holiday focuses around the traditional foods of this harvest season, it is really about showing gratitude, regardless of ethnic or religious origin.

Ultimately, our choices build us—not our observances, which we may wind up performing by rote. Every day, we carve out our belief system anew, and this time of year we make many of our choices through food. I am not vegetarian—but I do pay attention to how much meat I eat, aware finally of the consequences of that choice. Shouldn’t compassion be the very foundation of our spiritual awakening?

This year, make your choices meaningful. Make your flavors sing.

LYNNE MEREDITH SCHREIBER is a nationally known author and freelance writer who is a regular correspondent on Vedanta for ReadTheSpirit. She also is owner and chief creative officer of Your People LLC, a PR, maketing and business development company in suburban Detroit.

Great background reading: Here is Lynne’s overview of Vedanta, published in July 2010.

Are you a film and Sci-Fi fan? Planning to watch the newly released DVD version of “Avatar” this week? Here is a story Lynne reported about the ancient spiritual roots of themes celebrated in the Hollywood blockbuster “Avatar.”

We want our international conversation to continue

Conversation is far better than the dangerous shouting matches we’ve been witnessing in our global culture recently. So, please, email us at [email protected] and tell us what you think of our stories—and, please tell a friend to start reading along with you!

We welcome your Emails! . We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, AmazonHuffington PostYouTube and other social-networking sites. You also can Subscribe to our articles via Email or RSS feed. Plus, there’s a free Monday-morning “Planner” newsletter you may enjoy.

Vedanta in America: Swami Parthasarathy opens intellect

INDIAN LOTUS, Nelumbo nucifera, the national flower.

Religious traditions of Asia are blossoming around the world and ReadTheSpirit is working hard to help English-language readers learn from many different perspectives about the spiritual gifts of Asia. Even secular political and economic analysts point to the inevitable rise of superpowers China and India—so becoming aware of these cultures is a vital part of successful living in this new millennium.

Also this week, we reported on a controversial new documentary about the Dalai Lama and Tibet, and we published a three-part series about a landmark new edition of Rumi’s poetry. (Next week, we continue circling the world from yet another perspective—an in-depth interview with the popular evangelical Christian journalist Philip Yancey, whose latest book crisscrosses several continents.)

Today, we welcome back author and journalist Lynne Schreiber, ReadTheSpirit’s occasional correspondent on Vedanta in America. We will tell you more about Lynne at the end of today’s story, including links to a couple of her past reports. The term “Vedanta” refers to spiritual movements that have blossomed from the ancient religious traditions of India. For this month’s report, Lynne had a chance to report on an American tour by one of the great Indian teachers, Swami A. Parthasarathy. This may be the first time you’ve seen his name and face, but the Dalai Lama himself has ranked this teacher among the great gurus of this era—so we are not alone in emphasizing his importance.

Here is Lynne’s latest report …

Who am I?
Swami A. Parthasarathy helps us explore
the wisdom of Vedanta—and the world opening from ourselves

by Lynne Meredith Schreiber

“All religions came from Vedanta,” says Swami A. Parthasarathy, an 83-year-old guru from India who was in southeast Michigan last week to launch his 10th book: Governing Business and Relationships. We sat cross-legged on a soft couch in the home of a family hosting Swamiji for the week in suburbia’s sunny, cool autumn.

His week was packed. The day before our interview, hundreds of people had filled the wood floor of a local yoga center for his talk. The day after our meeting was his official book launch and, on the day after that, he was scheduled to deliver a major talk on “Who am I?”

As we sat down together, I was given 30 minutes with the guru whose books I’d been studying for more than half a year, whose words had quieted the worry and anxiety that had plagued me for most of my 39 years and whose beliefs had inspired me toward the confidence I needed to believe in my native Judaism—in my very own way.

He wore sweats and a T-shirt, having just finished breakfast with his hosts—a vegetarian breakfast, because no carnivore can be tamed, Swamiji explained. “A vegetarian diet is conducive to gaining control over the mind.”

Vedanta: A spiritual path marked by questions

As I began this journey myself some years ago, I initially wondered what was happening to me, to my own traditional identity. This was back when I began attending yoga classes four years ago, before the Yoga Shelter became a client of mine, before I knew anything about Vedanta, when I was still observing life as an Orthodox Jew. I wondered if the final greeting of my first yoga class—“Namaste,” hands together in prayer before the heart, with a slight bow of the head—conflicted in any way with my devout life.

After I became a student of Vedanta, delving into Swamiji’s books (some of them are listed at the end of this story), I no longer wondered about that. In fact, I might argue that studying Vedanta has made me a better Jew.

Question everything and don’t accept anything until you’ve analyzed, scrutinized it. That is a key message from this ancient philosophy, passed on by Swamiji. That’s true even if you’ve been taught precepts and rituals since childhood. Don’t buy it until you buy it, until it makes sense to you. All of this moves toward building the intellect—rarely used essential equipment buried so deep within us that we risk falling dreadfully off-course.

“Ninety percent of humanity doesn’t read,” Swamiji said, “The ten percent who read, read linear. Nobody reads for depth of study. Just length of story. Surface information. Intellectual sensuality. When you find the Self, you become a beacon for others to follow.”

An image from India: Like the lotus, awareness can unfold

A lotus flower is born in the water, it lives in the water and it dies in the water—yet it never gets wet. That’s because this beautiful plant is endowed with a protective coating that protects it in its habitat. This was Yoga Shelter Founder Eric Paskel’s introduction of Swami Parthasarathy before one of his lectures.

“We must develop the intellect,” pleads Swamiji. “It is completely neglected today. No university, no religious institution deals with the intellect. I’m trying to blow my lungs out to tell people that there is no problem in the world except one problem: lack of awareness, lack of intellect.”

Swamiji’s father used to tell stories about how, even as a young child, Swamiji asked probing, uncomfortable questions. “I don’t remember it, but I remember him telling the stories,” Swamiji said. “From the age of 7, I would ask, ‘Was the chicken first or the egg? Where do the trees come from?’ I was an enquirer from childhood. I wasn’t comfortable with what the world had to offer.”

As Swamiji grew older, he delved into English literature, religion, eventually Vedanta. He earned degrees in literature, science, law and a post-grad in international law from London University. But in his 20s he renounced his corporate career to dedicate himself to the study of Vedanta and has become a guru and guiding light for celebrities, business leaders and individuals the world over.

It took 30 years to conduct research, reach the Self and write 10 books to put Vedanta into a form that the layman could grasp, he explains. That included a developed commentary on the Bhagavad Gita—three volumes, four years to write each one. Then he began teaching, lecturing, inspiring.

 “Once you get to the ceiling, the search ends,” he says. “You find what you want. And you have an interest in passing it on. We have a terrible situation today. A person like me develops his intellect—I see people falling one by one. It’s like a sober person watching drug addicts.”

He adds, “We got here by a sense of indulgence and emotional infatuation. Parents with children, lovers with each other. At the body level, people are sensual, want sensual gratification. It pulls you down. At the emotional level, people are infatuated. Mental infatuation leads to total disaster.”

How does one become Self-realized?

Stop being selfish is a major step, says Swamiji. “Life is the combination of spirit and matter. When you’re catering to matter, it’s selfish. When you cater to spirit, it is the Self. The opposite of selfish. Pursue the Self, that is the ultimate.”

Vedanta teaches that God, the Source, is within every single creature—not outside, not separate. Like the light of the sun that reflects on the moon, there is no light in the moon but we see moonlight. The light of God reflects from within each of us, if we let it.

And how? According to Swamiji, fix a higher ideal for yourself, work with the goal of being of service only—not for a paycheck, not to buy material items or to hoard in a bank account. Truly giving is the best goal anyone can pursue.

Ask: ‘Can I serve anybody?’

Swamiji teaches that we must ask: “Can I serve anybody? The higher you go, the higher the ideal: you, community, country, the world, all creatures. The cruelty done to animals is horrible. Right from the start, stop thinking of the self.”

In India, there is a word, pratiksha, which loosely translates as tolerance and compassion. There is no exact equivalent in English. It is a word that is essential in living a life of service and humanity. Is it merely coincidence that there is no exact correlate in our language?

“All the problems in the world arise from the mind,” says Swamiji. “The mind is feelings, emotions, likes and dislikes. The intellect thinks, reasons, judges, decides. We make a living with our intelligence. The intellect is developed by yourself. No one feeds it to you.”

Swami Parthasarathy on developing the intellect

At age 7 or 8, the intellect becomes available to you. How to develop it? Swamiji teaches:

1. Never accept anything for granted.

2. Question everything—analyze every word and accept only what your judgment approves.

Everybody is after success and peace, says Swamiji. The only real way to achieve lasting success, unending peace, is to work toward a higher ideal, drop self-centered motives and pursuits, abandon incentives and strive for initiative. And, oh: Make sure you have concentration, consistency and cooperation in every job you do.

Concentration is when the intellect holds your mind on present action; you remain in the moment. Consistency is when all actions are directed to your ideal of purpose. And cooperation is when there is  no superiority or inferiority.

“It’s not the world that bothers you; nothing in the world can disturb you except yourself,” says Swamiji. “You are the architect of your fortune or misfortune.”

He teaches: Service and sacrifice. Duties not rights. Abandon attachment—pure love is sacrificial.

If there is any one lesson I’ve taken away from Swamiji’s teachings, it’s that my personal happiness and satisfaction have nothing to do with anyone else. Not my children nor my parents, my partner nor my friends. All of the drama that so easily can overwhelm us is self-created; it doesn’t truly exist. It’s what we immerse ourselves in because it’s familiar, even if it’s not fun.

The Truth, the Self, they reside in the quiet. Maintain an objectivity of everything and everyone around us, and we can begin to see the first inklings. By assessing the nature of another, by accurately determining the parameters of a situation, by having an ideal of working toward serving others, we can correctly evaluate every decision, every interaction.

And build compassion for others. True love. Love of Self.

“The more you invest in reality—Truth—nobody can influence you,” says Swamiji.

Care to read more about Lynne Schreiber and Swami A. Parthasarathy?

Books by Swami A. Parthasarathy are available through Amazon, including:

Lynne Meredith Schreiber is a nationally known author and freelance writer who is a regular correspondent on the importance of Vedanta for ReadTheSpirit. She also is owner and chief creative officer of Your People LLC, a PR, maketing and business development company in suburban Detroit. The Yoga Shelter has been a client of her firm, long before her parallel career as a journalist eventually took her more deeply into reporting on religous movements related to ancient Indian wisdom. Stay tuned in November: Lynne’s wide-ranging reports will continue with a Q-and-A with Ram Dass, whose influence in America spans decades—and generations.

Great background reading: Here is Lynne’s overview of Vedanta, published in July 2010.

Are you a film and Sci-Fi fan? Here is a story Lynne reported about the ancient spiritual roots of themes celebrated in the Hollywood blockbuster “Avatar.”

We want our international conversation to continue

Conversation is far better than the dangerous shouting matches we’ve been witnessing in our global culture recently. So, please, email us at [email protected] and tell us what you think of our stories—and, please tell a friend to start reading along with you!

We welcome your Emails! . We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, AmazonHuffington PostYouTube and other social-networking sites. You also can Subscribe to our articles via Email or RSS feed. Plus, there’s a free Monday-morning “Planner” newsletter you may enjoy.

Indian wisdom, Vedic teaching fuse in ‘Avatar’

This is, indeed, a story about the James Cameron film “Avatar”—because this interview with author Jeffrey Armstrong makes an important and inspirational connection with the ancient Indian wisdom, the Vedic teachings, that form the basis for the film’s powerful mythology. Journalist and author Lynne Meredith Schreiber occasionally writes about Vedanta (the ongoing path of spiritual wisdom that continues to spring from the Vedas) for ReadTheSpirit. Today, she interviews Jeffrey Armstrong. Enjoy!

You can purchase “Spiritual Teachings of the Avatar: Ancient Wisdom for a New World,” by Jeffrey Armstrong from Amazon now.

Avatar: Ancient and Modern, Fusing Time and Space
Interview with Jeffrey Armstrong on
“Spiritual Teachings of the Avatar: Ancient Wisdom for a New World”

by Lynne Meredith Schreiber

Jeffrey Armstrong has studied Vedanta for more than four decades. He now lives in Vancouver, B.C., but was born in Detroit, which he left in the 1960s. Armstrong visits India frequently, speaking to Indian youth about their own ancient philosophy of Vedanta, a path which many young Indians have abandoned. His new book, Spiritual Teachings of the Avatar, was written in partial response to the release of the Hollywood hit, Avatar, an effort to educate the Western masses in the ancient philosophy upon which the film was built.

According to Vedic teachings, an Avatar is a divine being that comes from the transcendental realm to restore peace and harmony on earth. At the core of Vedanta lies a respect for all life and the belief that the Divine resides within each and every creation, thus giving every living creature the possibility for direct connection with God.

LYNNE: What inspired you to become a Vedanta scholar?

JEFFREY: My parents didn’t go to church, but sent me to a Methodist or Presbyterian church. I quite eagerly went, was in the choir, was an altar boy. In my early teens, I started asking philosophical questions. This is the typical defining moment in our culture. The word heresy means to form an opinion. Once I started asking questions, I asked them of everyone: rabbis, Catholic priests, anyone I could find. Thus my philosophical journey began by the age of 13, and that journey kept going.

At university I studied psychology and literature, with a creative writing emphasis. There was really only one thing I was interested in in life: the answer to who we are and why we’re here. I had no other career aspirations. I wanted to know who we are and what makes us tick. That became my passion and it led me to turn over every stone. I worked at a metaphysical bookstore in Ann Arbor, read everything that came into print on everything esoteric around the world, learned everything I could.

LYNNE: How did you settle on Vedanta?

JEFFREY: My light bulb moment happened in my early 20s. As my philosophical quest got more intent, I narrowed my search to India. I came to the Vedantic conclusion and spent 5 years in ashrams. Through that I deepened my practice and studies and made this the root of my identity.

Yoga and Vedanta

LYNNE: How are yoga and Vedanta connected?

JEFFREY: Yoga and Vedanta are companions in the Vedic teachings—both are universal, they’re not cultural. They’re not particular to a certain group of people. They just work wherever you do them.

In the West, we’ve mastered exteriority but we’ve totally ignored interiority. So people are hollow at the center, heavy at the outside. That destroys their balance.

That’s why so many Westerners are embracing yoga—which can lead them to Vedanta if the studio that provides yoga is connected to the source.

There are three forms of yoga (mind, body and intellect). Both yoga and Vedanta ask a huge question, longer than just one life: who am I over a longer period of time and how should I live in harmony on the planet. It asks who am I outside of just my material identity, giving you interiority, balance and a deeper approach to the question of who I am beyond my situation right now.

All those questions have been neglected in our western culture—either faith-based religions are neglecting them or science or lifestyle is disturbed to such an extent. People are becoming yogis without asking any questions. Those questions begin to arise as you get more balance. The next level of yoga begins to open up to them which is who am I? Vedanta is the companion of yoga.

LYNNE: Why do you lecture in India if this philosophy comes from there?

JEFFREY: India is 50% under the age of 30 right now. India is a post-colonial culture, whose people have been told their culture is primitive and they should get modern. If we hadn’t colonized India and weren’t the ones who stole the china and the silverware, the universities would teach their story as openly as they teach other stories. They’re not – they have a built-in bias which is cultural.

Contemporary importance of Avatar

LYNNE: So what is Avatar and why is it relevant now?

JEFFREY: The conclusion of Vedanta rests upon the evidence of history. If you ask, who are you among the other nations? The supreme reality, the supreme being, aka bhagavan in the Vedas—made a revelation of both how to live on the planet, who we are and of the ultimate transcendental reality. That’s the fullest sense of the word Avatar.

The intermediate meaning is there are numerous divine beings out of our sight but real, that could choose to come to our earth and get involved with our world. When Christians hear the word Avatar, they say, ‘Oh so Jesus was an Avatar.’ Indians would say, ‘Yes, a partial one.’

The purpose of an Avatar is to help us restore balance and harmony here, to help us know who we are and to point us in the direction of higher truths.

LYNNE: Tell us about the book.

JEFFREY: The book was written in 26 days—cover to cover. It was an overnight success in 40 years. It was an interesting moment that such a large publisher (Atria Books is a division of Simon and Schuster) took an interest in a book like this and rushed it.

James Cameron wrote the story for the movie Avatar, and he said on YouTube that he got most of the knowledge from India. The texture of the film came from deep sea exploration. When the film came out, I had already scheduled four classes for my weekly class on the subject of Avatar, as part of my normal curriculum. When I saw the film, I meditated and realized I was supposed to write a book on Avatar. My sister is in public relations, and she connected me with Simon & Schuster. Within a week, I had the book contract.

Indian wisdom, Vedanta rising in the West

LYNNE: Do you see Vedanta catching on more widely in the West due to movies like this?

JEFFREY: Kipling was wrong; east and west have met. Just as the two hemispheres of our brain are now meeting, the revival of our feminine side as well as the scientific masculine side, really it has to happen that way.

As the world grows as a global community, as long as we can keep that open communication, all the different cultures of the world are now going to flow through those channels. It’s a global smorgasbord of food; the smorgasbord of ideas is only a step away.

In a funny sort of a way, everyone is exploiting everything first—James Cameron did it lovingly, that’s ok. He’s glad to say that’s where I got it from, which means he’s inviting us into the conversation.

If it’s done in a way where there’s nothing you have to join to receive the knowledge, there’s no threat of Kool-Aid, there’s no thing you have to become a part of, lose your identity, to gain more knowledge. That’s the secret of India—they have never colonized another culture to impose theirs. The knowledge of India is very soft and non-coercive.

Our true self is listening all during the presentation but in the same soft way that I’ve written the book. There’s no reason this knowledge won’t go around the world in its soft form because it isn’t coercive. There’s just too much information out there for people to not engage with the questions of life now.

You can purchase “Spiritual Teachings of the Avatar: Ancient Wisdom for a New World,” by Jeffrey Armstrong from Amazon now.

Care to read more? Here is Lynne’s overview of Vedanta, published in July 2010.

Want to find out more about the challenges of living with religious diversity? Educator Noelle Sutherland writes about the challenge of moving beyond mere “tolerance,” especially when Americans embrace Eastern religious paths that seem exotic to our mostly Christian neighbors in this country.

Lynne Meredith Schreiber is a writer, publicist and marketing consultant in metro Detroit. Learn more about her at and, and read her blog at

We want our “national conversation” to continue

Conversation is far better than the dangerous shouting matches we’ve been witnessing in our global culture recently. So, please, email us at [email protected] and tell us what you think of our stories—and, please tell a friend to start reading along with you!

We welcome your Emails! . We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, AmazonHuffington PostYouTube and other social-networking sites. You also can Subscribe to our articles via Email or RSS feed. Plus, there’s a free Monday-morning “Planner” newsletter you may enjoy.

733 Eastern wisdom of Indian Vedanta in the West

INDIAN STREET SCENE: Doorways marked with the mystical “Aum” in Sanscrit, a widely known symbol of Vedanta and Hinduism in general.Welcome back one of our most popular contributing writers, Lynne Meredith Schreiber, exploring a new theme: Vedanta, Eastern wisdom associated with India, Hinduism and the Vedas. Vedanta may sound like a recent import, but its formal introduction dates back at least to 1893, when Swami Vivekananda was welcomed at a Chicago conference of world religions. We hope you enjoy this story. Please add comments or email us at [email protected]. In coming months, we’ll publish occasional stories by Lynne, a veteran journalist, author and marketing consultant.

Vedanta and the Western Quest for Meaning

By Lynne Meredith Schreiber

PREPARING FOR A FESTIVAL: A man in Bangladesh volunteers at a temple preparing long garlands of marigolds for a festival.I don’t believe in coincidences. When a series of connected ideas strings along, I look for meaning and direction. I believe in cause and effect, in one step leads to the next, in the door appears when the person is ready to walk through it. So, it is no surprise to me that I lived a childhood of secularity only to seek religious observance as a young adult and spent a decade in rigid religion only to emerge to the flower-smelling of Eastern philosophy. One thing leads to the next. For years, I sat in agitated rumination about money, work and life in general, never finding a path toward clarity and calm. I tried—believe me I tried! Mainly, I encountered traditions that teach of a God outside of each person—separate from the world and from the individual.

So, when a yoga client said to me one day, after a particularly grueling meeting with agitated businessmen, “This won’t bother you anymore after you study Vedanta,” I understandably thought he was crazy. Cultish. Proselytizing.

I was dragged into the study of Vedanta out of obligation to a client but there I found solace, guidance and inspiration. The ancient Eastern philosophy opened my eyes with its universal wisdom and profoundly simple inspiration. “Vedanta, the religion and philosophy of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita in ancient India, teaches that the essence of each person is divine, and that the purpose of life is to unfold and realize this divinity, to make it manifest in every movement of life,” according to the Vedanta West organization. “All religions are accepted as paths to this realization.”

All religions are accepted… That concept alone was earth-shattering for me to discover. And then: God resides in each and every one of us… This was different than any other path I had explored!

Statistics about Westerners studying Eastern philosophy are hard to come by, but it’s clear that many Westerners are turning to Eastern traditions for spiritual values that elude them in our fast-paced, material-focused way of life. Some people embrace Eastern paths completely while others take certain modes of study, rituals or beliefs as support for their Western faith. Walk into a Target store and you’ll find neighbors buying yoga gear. Year after year, pollsters find a significant minority of Americans affirming tenets of Eastern religions. A recent Pew study found more than 1 in 5 Americans who call themselves Christians also say they believe in reincarnation. In growing numbers, Americans feel free to mingle traditions. For me, that’s merging my own Jewish tradition with study and practice of Vedanta.

The essential difference between Vedanta, or Eastern philosophy, and the Judeo-Christian model is a core shift from outward focus on enlightenment to inward. Vedanta preaches that Divinity lies within, that each person contains God and must remove the obstacles (our anxieties, physical desires, emotions) to find the Godhead. In Vedanta, God is not separate from the world. Here are just some of the teachings that inspired me at a Vedanta-inspired retreat:

  • Do what you can do. By doing what you can do, you will be able to do more.
  • Don’t focus on what you’re not doing.
  • Adopt an attitude of “Après vous …” (a hospitable, “After you …”)
  • If you don’t love everything, you can’t love anything.
  • Love is universal identification, not unilateral preference.
  • Assess every person’s true nature and do not expect them to behave in a way that is not congruent with their nature. (Boy, that one would’ve been immensely helpful when I was married!)

You can see how I was opening up to concepts I never encountered in my experiences with Judaism or Christianity. And there was more. My retreat included a focus on what we eat: The planners promoted veganism so as not to harm other creatures. Not becoming a soapbox activist, mind you—just rethinking every decision to ensure that the imprint we make on this earth is one that promotes peace. No, I haven’t bought into everything hook-line-and-sinker. I still eat meat—but less of it.

Vedanta Wisdom on Eliminating
Life’s Explosive Dramas

A big lesson for me is steering clear of drama, the biggest addiction in our country. In a stressful day, our emotions can explode. No other religious study brought this challenge so clearly to light for me. Through my Vedanta teachers, I began to consider my responsibility in my own happiness—or unhappiness. Was I needlessly dwelling on the past or future—like debt still to be repaid or a relationship gone wrong? Now, I am working on being right here, right now, in the living present, and doing my life’s work for the sake of doing the work—not for its eventual fruit.

Each morning, after I read a few pages of Vedanta and jot down notes on how I’ve taken it in, I look at the work I have to do and contact each client with gratitude for the work they send my way. When I have a difficult client, I have compassion for what he must be experiencing. I don’t allow myself to be a door mat, but I don’t run from discomfort, either.

Vedanta is one of Hinduism’s six main systems of thought, described as a scientific approach to religion and truth. Its main message is that one must learn for oneself, ingest the lessons and, if they prove true, live them. Vedantic teachers abound, mostly hailing from India, and there are many texts to choose from. I’ve been studying Swami Parthasarathy’s books (“Fall of the Human Intellect” and “The Eternities”), but there are many others.

Basic Principles of Vedanta

As I am learning them, these are the basic principles …

  1. Nothing exists except the Divine Being, or Brahman, which is at the core of every individual.
  2. The very nature of the Soul is Divine: the Cosmic Self becomes the individual Self.
  3. The goal of the individual, then, is to realize and manifest the divinity, which is his/her true nature. And to become Self-Realized.
  4. The universality of religious truth: there are many ways to realize God.

A long string of Westerners have found wisdom in Vedanta, including J.D. Salinger, Carl Jung and Thomas Merton. Historians Arnold Toynbee and Will and Ariel Durant and sociologist Pitrim Sorokin also helped to bring Vedanta into American popular discourse.

Most Vedanta scholars originate in the East because American society is not a conducive landscape for nurturing the growth of such a philosophy. Our emphasis on accumulation of wealth, on competition and on a mostly separatist lifestyle directly contradicts what Vedanta teaches. But, with a sky-high divorce rate, an obesity epidemic and other catastrophic trends, it is clear to many that our culture can be toxic. One of my teachers says, “An animal in the wild will never be overweight. Only in captivity.” Dare I say, we are animals in captivity.

It took me until the age of almost-39 to find a path that made sense to me and which provided solace from the dizzying franticness I had been enduring. Since embracing Vedanta and beginning my study, my business has boomed, my parenting has improved and my personal sense of equilibrium has grown.

Please, look for occasional articles I plan to write about these emerging issues. I’ll report on books, share interviews and explore related topics. Join me. And please, weigh in on where you find inspiration, what muddles you and why.

Care to read more about Vedanta? Links to helpful websites:

Lynne Meredith Schreiber is a writer, publicist and marketing consultant in metro Detroit. Learn more about her at and, and read her blog at

ENJOY OUR ENTIRE GREAT SUMMER READING AND VIEWING SERIES: (Our series so far: “Crown of Aleppo,” “Science Vs. Religion,” “Belief,” “Apparition,” “Burma VJ,” “Facets World Cup,” “Mary Mae and the Gospel Truth” “The Lonely Polygamist,” “Rise and Shine,” “Saints,” “Beaches of Agnes,” “Mystically Wired,” “Creative Aging,” “Twelve by Twelve,” “Eyewitness 4,” “Connecting Like Jesus,” “NRSV: XL Edition” and “Putting Away Childish Things.”)

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Interview with Stephen Prothero on ‘God Is Not 1’

Prothero’s book does not contain maps. This map, ABOVE, is one of many attempts to show dominant areas of religious faiths.Stephen Prothero’s “God Is Not One,” is really the book that many readers expected they were buying when they purchased “Religious Literacy” in 2008. Now, these books almost form a two-volume set. The first book reported on the problem of widespread ignorance about religion. For example, most Americans can’t name the 4 gospels. But, there wasn’t room in that first book to include all the fascinating Religion 101 material that many readers expected to find there. Now, in 2010, “God Is Not One” offers us engaging, discussion-sparking overviews of eight major world faiths. This new book really is Religion 101 as taught by a very popular teacher.

One big innovation in Prothero’s new book: There’s an entire section on the Yoruba religion and its many colorful forms now morphing around the world, including in American neighborhoods.

Yes, it’s also true: The new book opens and closes with Prothero’s rather startling arguments rebuffing the work of some other popular teachers like Huston Smith and Karen Armstrong. But the core of “God Is Not One” is a very substantial look at eight of the world’s most important religions. In short: If you’ve got a small group that wants to explore other religious traditions on a weekly basis, this book will keep your members excited and full of conversation for two months.

On Monday, we also published a brief excerpt from the book, which explains Prothero’s overall argument. It’s important to understand that, while Prothero definitely disagrees with Smith and Armstrong on some key points, Prothero is not calling for religious friction. He is not a throw-back to the days when many American writers wrote about other world religions mainly to prove them wrong and to show American missionaries how to convert their members. On the contrary, Prothero argues that his clear-eyed approach to teaching about religious differences can form a stronger basis for civil acceptance of all major religions.

Highlights of Our Interview With
Stephen Prothero on “God Is Not One”

DAVID: Given your title, I think readers will be surprised at what they’ll find between this book’s covers. First, there is a passionate manifesto here, trying to steer educational programs about religion away from the Huston Smith model that focused on the universal similarities between religions. But, the vast majority of this book is really a “great read” about eight of the world’s biggest religions. Am I correct that you’re sandwiching two different goals between these covers?

STEPHEN: The book definitely has those two aims. At the most basic level, the book is a general introduction to the world’s religions that avoids some of the mistakes of past books and projects that tried to smoosh all the world’s religions into one common faith.

Then, there also is this argument I’m making that shows up more in the introduction and the conclusion to the book. Maybe it does have a manifesto feeling to it. It’s my response to the Huston Smith crowd that promotes the idea that all religions are the same and are good. But there’s more to my argument than just a response to Huston Smith. I’m also responding to the new atheists who say all religions are the same and are bad. And, I’m responding to all those people who say their own individual religion is the only good and the only right religion. I’m trying to thread the needle here between all three constituencies.

DAVID: You’ve got a lot of memorable lines in this book. Here’s one from early in the book: “Religion is not merely a private affair. It matters socially, economically, politically and militarily. Religion may or may not move mountains but it is one of the prime movers in politics worldwide.” This seems particularly true in a post-9/11 world.

STEPHEN: Since 9/11, we are all aware that religion has an undeniable public presence in the world. Before 9/11 as a religious-studies scholar, I had to explain to people what I do. That included my colleagues at my university and people I met at cocktail parties and in airplanes. People thought if you used the word religion in your job title, then you had to be a minister or some kind of evangelist. But now we’re all aware of religion as a force in the world.

I still think there are a lot of false views out there: Some say religion is going away; some say religion is just for idiots; and some say we don’t have to worry about religion because religion is a good thing. All three are false. What we witnessed on 9/11 was religion being dangerous. Now, we understand that religion has such force. I think we get that religion can be dangerous. But, here’s the problem: I think we still don’t know much at all about religion. The next step is: We need to learn about this force in our world.

Prothero on Yoruba Religion

Contemporary wood carving of the Yoruba orisha Shango, a manifestation of God in the Yoruba religion. Shango is depicted traditionally as a god of thunder. Sometimes, Shango’s image is abstracted into the form of a huge axe from which thunderbolts are produced. In this case, he is shown as a male figure holding an axe. He is supporting an image of his wife.DAVID: Now, when readers see that the bulk of your book is an introduction to eight world religions, they may think: Ohhh, that sounds boring. That sounds a lot like other books I’ve got on my shelf already. In fact, you’ve got some surprisingly fresh sections in this book. Let’s talk about what I think is the most important: your section on the Yoruba religion. There’s very very little good reading material out there. Wikipedia has a little bit on Yoruba religion, but that Wiki page is pretty lame.

Your 40 pages on Yoruba, which you subtitle “The Way of Connection,” is one of the great selling points for this new book. I think people should buy it just for those 40 pages.

I’m guessing that most of our readers aren’t familiar with this religion. In fact, along with this interview I’m going to publish one of the online maps of dominant religions around the world—and most of those maps don’t even include the Yoruba religion. In your book, you give us a few popular culture connections with Yoruba. One comes from the 1950s, when Desi Arnaz used to sing songs naming the Yoruba “orisha,” or manifestation of God, known as Babaluaye. Then, flash forward to 1990 when DC Comics began featuring Yoruba orishas in popular comic books to add more African diversity to DC’s pantheon of superheroes. So, let’s talk about this very unusual part of your book.

STEPHEN: Thank you for noticing that! One issue when you’re writing any general introduction to religion is the question of what you will include. At Boston University, I am the advisor for the Sikh student group and yet I didn’t have enough space in this book to include Sikhism. I wanted to make room for the Yoruba religion because it’s one example of religions that other writers tend to dismiss or to lump together with phrases like “primitive religions.”

Shango in DC Comics, using his axe to spark thunder.In planning this book, I asked the question: What are the leading religions of the world right now? I decided to write about the Yoruba tradition because it has close to 100 million adherents. And it has a real presence in the United States in groups like Santeria. It also has public power here, because one of the most important U.S. Supreme Court cases in the last century was the Santeria case in Dade County where there was an effort to outlaw the sacrifice of animals.

DAVID: OK, now you’re referring to Santeria, which we might say is a New World branch from Yoruba, and readers will begin to light up with mental associations. But, we have to admit that some of those pop-culture associations are not good. I can think of stock villains in some mystery novels and movies that are cast as Santeria practitioners or followers of Vodou or Vodun.

STEPHEN: Yes, we’re aware of Vodou through pop culture. People have seen images and references to this tradition, so I thought that readers could use this opportunity to learn about this as a true world religion. I also had a very specific push in doing this. I gave a talk about two years ago in Louisville in an interfaith gathering and this African-American woman stood up and said: “I’m sick and tired of hearing about all these white religions all the time. When are you going to write about religions of people of color—about African religions?”

Also, I have worked with Wande Abimbola, an important Nigerian scholar. This is a religion that is ancient and also is urban and has flourished in Nigeria and other parts of West Africa. It crossed the Atlantic with the slave trade to Central and North America and it’s famous for merging in some ways with Catholicism to form movements over here. I find it fascinating because of a few concepts in Yoruba religion. One is the concept of ashé, which can be translated as the power to make things happen. This power takes many forms in the world—in people and in plants and animals, too. And a huge effort in the religion is to tap into ashé and create power for yourself. It’s a tradition that put the notion of power front and center and also put the problem of disconnection and the goal of connection front and center. A lot of us in the modern West feel disconnected from what matters in life, from sources of power. The more cell phones and computers and iPhones and iPads we have, the more we feel isolated at the same time. This is a religion that has thought for centuries about how to connect humans one to another and to the cosmos and to the gods and to the natural world—and to connect us to our own true selves. The tradition is fascinating.

DAVID: I’m sure we’ll get an email or two from readers pointing out that Santeria and forms of Vodou aren’t really the same thing as the original Yoruba religion, so let me at least ask you about your grouping of them.

STEPHEN: If you get an email like that, then you’ve got very well educated readers. But you’re right. This is a real question, so I showed this chapter—and all the chapters in my book—to experts in these traditions. The one comment I got from some Yoruba experts is the thing we often hear in academia: Don’t lump. Things are distinctive. And that is the bane of academics today. Buddhist scholars say there is no single Buddhism. There are many different Buddhisms. Others will say: Don’t confuse Protestantism with Catholicism with Mormonism, because they’re now three separate religions. But that isn’t an issue of truth or falsehood. It’s a question of what kind of zoom lens we place on our cameras as we explore these traditions.

I see enough continuity between the Old World and the New World Yoruba religion to use one name for this section of the book. I know some scholars will disagree with me. But, I would argue there are probably fewer continuities between contemporary American Southern Baptists and traditional Russian Orthodox than there are between Yoruba practitioners in Nigeria and Santeria practitioners in New York City.

DAVID: I’m asking about this, because your own book’s major theme is: Don’t lump religions together. Can we tell readers roughly where this unifying movement began? We might go back to William Blake in the 1700s or the Baha’i movement in the 1800s. We might pick a number of other starting point.

STEPHEN: The origins of this contemporary idea of religions being one, I think, comes to us through India. I do mention William Blake in the book, but what I’m talking about is mainly a 20th century phenomenon that comes through India and crosses over into southern California. I’m talking about Aldous Huxley and Huston Smith and that whole crew that Don Lattin has written about.

DAVID: We just welcomed Don Lattin into ReadTheSpirit to talk about his new book, “The Harvard Psychedelic Club.” Huxley was part of that movement as was Smith and a number of other famous people.

STEPHEN: Yes, Smith and Huxley and these guys were talking with swamis in southern California and then filtering this message out through their own popular writings. This was a theological desire to have all the religions seen as the same. Part of this emerged from modern India as a response to Christian missionaries. Indians began pointing out that their religion was valid and, in fact, had great similarities to others—so stop coming over to India and trying to convert us. Then, this gathers a moral force among people opposed to the imperialist and exclusivist ideas about religion.

DAVID: But you’re opposed to such forces, too.

STEPHEN: What I’m saying is that there are more than these two choices. You don’t have to be either an exclusivist—or declare that everyone is the same. I think there is another approach that sees the real differences in religion. You’ve got to remember that the world Huston Smith and the others were responding to was the world of their parents. There’s something definitely good to be said for their movement. We don’t want to go rampaging around the world trying to covert everybody. What Huston Smith was doing in the 1950s took great moral courage and intellectual bravery.

Now in 2010, I’m saying, we’ve had generations of religious studies since the 1950s and we’ve seen a lot of change in the world. But, this kind of orthodoxy from this earlier movement remains and says that we must say that all religions are the same.

DAVID: There’s an important truth in what you’re arguing here. One way to see it is to walk into a grocery store or a Target or Walmart store and start looking closely at products. Look at exercise clothes—often promoted as yoga gear for the millions of people who practice yoga. Or look at candles, teas and other beverages, popular music, outdoor gear, general inspirational books, magazines.

A few years ago, I asked a Hindu scholar to spend an hour walking through a Target store. I don’t think he normally went shopping for his household, because  he finally began picking up packages and looking carefully—and he was amazed and a little angry as well! He said, “Hey! They’re selling my tradition with their toothpaste! And they aren’t getting it right!” One problem with this all-religions-are-the-same idea is that people can smoosh religious themes into our consumer products as well, right?

STEPHEN: Part of why we can get hoodwinked by the lump-all-religions-into-one folks is that we don’t know enough. Many people aren’t even knowledgeable about their own religion. But if we begin to learn about world religions, we realize that they are not all the same.

Prothero’s Call for an “Amazing Conversation”

DAVID: We’re going to run a very brief excerpt from your book’s conclusion to explain more about your argument to our readers. ALSO, on the day this interview appears, we’re going to publish a story by a young American Muslim woman who describes how great it is when her father, who is Muslim, cordially debates with her uncle, who is Hindu. This is an important part of her family life—and it can be a model for civil community in our world as well. We don’t have to agree on everything. But we do have to find cordial ways to explore each other’s core values.

STEPHEN: I love what you’re saying about this young woman! One of the things that is very attractive about Judaism is that Judaism has a great tradition of joyful argument. I lament the loss of that in college! That was a huge experience for me, too, when I was growing up. Yes, we have to talk. We have to argue. If we’re left with pretense and misunderstandings, then that leads us to conflict. I use the term “conversation” in my book. The world’s great religions invite us to enter into an amazing conversation. To pretend that all religions are the same is to forestall much of this amazing conversation. I love the story of this Muslim woman. If her family concluded that all religions were the same, then she would miss out on the Hindu uncle and the Muslim father arguing in the dining room.

DAVID: Are you hopeful we can achieve this kind of civil community that joyfully debates?

STEPHEN: I am totally hopeful. This is the Confucius in me, I think—the Confucius who believes in the importance of learning. I’m convinced that the old ways of going about this are not going to work. I think we need Interfaith 2.0. Rather than forcing false unity, let’s assume we’re different and our goal is to understand the differences and to appreciate living with them.

(Originally published in

684 Prothero’s Provocative Argument: “God Is Not One”

Stephen Prothero is a very important teacher far beyond his classroom at Boston University. We last talked with Stephen in 2008, when he published his “Religious Literacy”—a wake-up call to Americans about how little we know even about our own individual faiths! This week, we welcome Stephen back to ReadTheSpirit for an interview about his latest book, “God Is Not One,” which is a very helpful overview of eight world religions and their distinctive differences.

Prothero’s books are sold under provocative titles, but his mission is vitally important—as crucial as helping the millions of Americans who travel overseas navigate the rocky boundaries between various faiths and cultures. This week at ReadTheSpirit, our overall theme is: “How do we talk to each other honestly?” That’s at the core of Prothero’s work as an educator and writer.

Care to read about the research that led him to write “God Is Not One”? Here’s a link to our 2008 Interview with Stephen Prothero about “Religious Literacy.” Then, here’s a link to 10 sample questions from Prothero’s infamous religion quiz.

So, why is it important for all of us to know more about the differences between religions? We’ll talk with Stephen about this at length in our Wednesday interview this week. But his new book’s main message is easy to misunderstand. As we recommend this book to you, today, we also are sharing …

A Brief Excerpt of “God Is Not One” by Stephen Prothero

“’The Tao has 10,000 gates,’ say the masters, and it is up to each of us to find our own.”

To explore the great religions is to wander through these 10,000 gates. It is to enter into Hindu conversations on the logic of karma and rebirth, Christian conversations on the mechanics of sin and resurrection, and the Daoist conversation son flourishing here and now (and perhaps forever). It is also to encounter rivalries between Hindus and Muslims in India, between Jews and Muslims in Israel, and between Christians and Yoruba practitioners in Nigeria. Each of these rivals offers a different vision of “a human being alive.” Each offers its own diagnosis of the human problem and its own prescription for a cure. Each offers its own techniques for reaching its religious goal, and its own exemplars for emulation. Muslims say pride is the problem; Christians say salvation is the solution; education and ritual are key Confucian techniques; and Buddhism’s exemplars are the arhat (for Theravadins), the bodhisattva (for Mahaynists), and the lama (for Tibetan Buddhists). These differences can be overemphasized, of course, and the world’s religions do converge at points. Because these religions are a family of sorts, some of the questions they ask overlap, as do some of the answers.

It is tempting to lapse into the sort of naive Godthink that lumps all other religious paths into either opposites or mirror images of our own. The New Atheists see all religions (except their own “anti-religious religion”) as the same idiocy, the same poison. The perennial philosophers see all religions as the same truth, the same compassion. What both camps fail to see is religious diversity. Rather than 10,000 gates, they see only one. Godthink is ideological rather than analytical—it starts in the dense clouds of desire rather than with a clear-eyed vision of how things are on the ground. In the case of Hitchens and the New Atheists, it begins with the desire to denounce the evil in religion. In the case of Huston Smith and the perennialists, it begins with the desire to praise the good in religion. Neither of these desires serves our understanding of a world in which religious traditions are at least as diverse as our political, economic, and social arrangements—where religious people make war and peace in the name of their gods, Buddhas, or orishas. It does not serve diplomats or entrepreneurs working in India or China to be told that all Hindus and all Confucians are equally idiotic. It does not serve soldiers in the Middle East to be told that the Shia Islam of Iran is essentially the same as the Sunni Islam of Saudi Arabia, or that Muslims, Christians and Jews in Israel do not disagree fundamentally on matters of faith or practice.

I too hope for a world in which human beings can get along with their religious rivals. I am concerned, however, that we need to pursue this goal through new means. Rather than beginning with the sort of Godthink that lumps all religions together in one trash can or treasure chest, we must start with a clear-eyed understanding of the fundamental differences in both belief and practice between Islam and Christianity, Confucianism and Hinduism.

You can order “God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter” from Amazon.

Come back tomorrow for a review of a movie—new to DVD this week—about Americans’ difficulty in talking about the true cost of our global wars. On Wednesday, Stephen Prothero talks about his new book.

(Originally published in


What’s the Spiritual Season this week? Palm Sunday, Rama Navami, the Annunciation and a day for water


(You’ll also find weekly news in our “ReadTheSpirit Planner.” See
a sample & learn how to get this free Email newsletter.)

What’s the Spiritual Season?
(March 22 to 28, 2010)
By Stephanie Fenton

of Christians around the world will be entering Holy Week at the end of
this week with colorful celebration of Palm Sunday! But that’s not all—Christians also
recognize the Feast of the Annunciation this week, and Eastern
Christians honor Lazarus Saturday. Also this week, Hindus simultaneously
celebrate Rama Navami and Swaminarayan Jayanti, and some Zoroastrians
mark Khordad Sal. Oh, and don’t forget to learn a little more about
water conservation on Monday, especially since water plays such a big
part in every major religion. Learn all about these events and
observances below …

ALL WEEK, Lent continues
for 2 billion Christians around the world. We’re publishing a FREE
daily Lenten series, called “Our Lent: Things We Carry,” for the 40 days
leading to Easter.

    ALSO, we’re expanding our Lenten
Resources Page
—with suggestions readers are Emailing us at [email protected].

MONDAY, learn
about the importance of water—and how you can help conserve it—on World Water Day. This
year, participate in the theme of “Clean Water for a Healthy World,”
which was developed in hopes of “raising the profile of water quality at
a political level so that water quality considerations are made
alongside those of water quantity.”
    Since 1,500 cubic kilometers
of waste-water are produced globally each year (and in developing
countries, 80 percent of waste-water is not reusable, due to a lack of
resources), this problem—combined with ever-growing populations—is
reaching the level of a global crisis. In 1992, a UN conference in Rio
de Janiero created World Water Day for this very purpose. Check out the
World Water Day Web site for documents and information, a list of participating
and ideas for ways you can help.
    Besides its
irreplaceable role in sustaining most life on Earth, water plays another
major role: in religion. Most religions view water as purifying for
both the body and the soul. (Lots of details
are at The Water Page, an initiative to promote sustainable water
resources management and use
.) In the Baha’i faith, water is often
used as a metaphor for spiritual truths; Buddhists use water in funeral
rituals and include a water-centered chant; and Christians are baptized
in water that has been blessed. In the Hindu tradition, water in
rivers—particularly the Ganges—is considered sacred and often is a major
part of festivals; Muslims purify themselves with water; Jews become
ritually pure during washing with water (origins are found in the Torah,
as are the stories of Noah’s Ark and Moses crossing the Red Sea); and
Zoroastrians view water as having unique purifying qualities.

joyously recognize the birth of Lord Rama during Rama Navami. (Here’s
a page from the BBC
.) According to Hindu tradition, Rama is the
seventh incarnation of Lord Vishnu, and in many places with large Hindu
populations, the observance can last nine days. Today is the culmination
of these festivities.
    As Lord Rama is the hero of the Ramayana,
a Sanskrit epic that details his life, many devotees read the entire
epic during the week leading up to Rama Navami. (Read more at Wikipedia.)
This hero is viewed by many Hindus as the ultimate human being, son,
husband and father. Gandhi even said that Ramrajya, the peaceful and
prosperous reign of Lord Rama, was the ideal way that India should be
after independence. In small villages, the tradition continues of
storytellers narrating episodes of Rama’s life, while adding in local
humor and perspective for the enjoyment of listeners. ( offers
a colorful array of Ram Navami history, poems and more.
Aside from the rituals performed in many homes, Hindus often pray in
elaborately-decorated Vedic temples, dance, sing, offer fruits and
flowers to the deity, and fast (the fasting of Rama Navami is usually
broken when the day’s festivities come to an end. Try a
recipe here
). In a few places in North India, chariot
processions—complete with persons dressed in period clothing—attract
thousands of visitors. (A
neat picture of Rama and his family is at
) In
South India, temples often host ceremonial weddings that represent
Rama’s marriage to Sita: Wedding role-playing has been a common
celebration for nearly 400 years.
    Since Rama’s dynasty has been
linked with the sun, his birth is observed as at noon, the time when the
sun is at its brightest. According to recent studies, some consider the
birth of Rama to have been in January of 4114 BCE.

some Hindus celebrate Swaminarayan Jayanti, a day to honor
the birth of Lord Swaminarayan. (Here’s
the BBC page
.) Unlike the millenia-old commemorations of most Hindu
deities, this Hindu jayanti marks the birth of an 18th-century figure who lived into the 19th century. Lord Swaminarayan founded the
Swaminarayan tradition of Hinduism, a popular sect of Hinduism today. (Read
more about some of last year’s celebrations at, a Swaminarayan
Or, check out Hinduism
    Lord Swaminarayan was born in North India and
traveled across India as a social and moral reformer. At 21, he founded
his movement and went on to initiate 3,000 monks; Swaminarayan
promised to remain with his followers through a succession of
enlightened gurus.
    Devotees who worship Swaminarayan often sing,
fast, offer food at temples and reenact episodes of his life.
Swaminarayan’s life was documented by his followers, and as his birth
was at 10:10 p.m., a ritual known as arti is performed at this
auspicious time.

Eastern and Western Christians honor the Feast of the Annunciation (the day the angel Gabriel told the Virgin Mary she would conceive the
son of God). According to Christian tradition, the Virgin Mary was told
that she had been chosen as the mother of Jesus, also known to many Christians as the Theotokos
(God-bearer). This day falls nine months before the celebration of the Nativity. The Annunciation is also cited
in the Quran. (Wikipedia has a general
explanation of the Annunciation
    According to the Bible,
Mary was already set to marry Joseph when she was visited by Gabriel.
Although doubtful at first of the possibility of the conception, Mary
ended her conversation with Gabriel by declaring, “Behold, the handmaid
of the Lord; be it to me according to your word.” (An extensive
article is in the library of the Global Catholic Network.
Eastern Christians name Mary as the “Theotokos” because of her aid in
making the Word of God human. This feast is the
first of all feasts of the Lord in the Church. (The
Orthodox Research Institute provides an analysis and explanation of
Annunciation details
    In the Greek language, the
Annunciation is called “Euangelismos,” which means literally “spreading
the Good News.” (If you’re looking for a way
to celebrate this feast with a craft, try this one from Women for Faith
and Family: a flower centerpiece with flowers that represent
incarnation, innocence and eternal fidelity.
) The day of the
Annunciation Feast is also sometimes celebrated as a New Year in
England—where it is called “Lady Day”—and in various other countries,

Zoroastrians who follow the Fasli calendar (one of three calendars)
celebrate the birth of Zoroaster, the founder of Zoroastrianism. This
holiday, known as Khordad Sal, is placed on a symbolic date because the
precise day and year of Zoroaster’s birth is unknown. (Find out more by reading
Wikipedia’s entry
.) Nevertheless, many regard Zoroaster to have
lived in the first millennium BCE.
    Zoroastrian legend states that
when Zoroaster’s mother was five months pregnant, she had a nightmare
about the end of the world; when an angel appeared to her, she was told
that her unborn child would become a prophet who would reverse the
coming destruction.
    For Khordad Sal, Zoroastrians around the
world clean their homes, offer prayers of thanksgiving partake in a
feast, gather in fire temples and perform rituals. (Great
information is also at London Grid for Learning, an English educational
) This “greater Noruz,”or “greater New Year,” has been
observed in Iran for thousands of years.

Christians prepare for the final week of Lent and prepare to enter Holy
Week with Lazarus Saturday. This major feast recognizes the miracle
performed by Jesus in raising Lazarus from the dead, according to
the Bible; the Church recognizes the victory of Jesus over death before
entering the solemn Holy Week. (Read more from
the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese.
    According to Christian tradition, Jesus told his disciples that Lazarus had fallen asleep, and that he was
going to visit Lazarus to wake him up. When Jesus visited Lazarus in Bethany, the body had been in a tomb for four days; Jesus called to Lazarus from
outside of the tomb, and Lazarus walked out. When Jesus resurrected
Lazarus, many hailed Jesus as the messiah, according to the Christian Bible.
    In centuries past, hermits
would leave their wilderness retreats on Lazarus Saturday and return to
their respective monasteries for Holy Week services. (Wikipedia’s Orthodox
section, termed OrthodoxWiki, has more.
) In Russia, it has long been
tradition to eat caviar on Lazarus Saturday, and in the Greek tradition,
Lazarakia spice breads are made and eaten today.
Christians formally end the 40 days of Lent on the celebration of
Lazarus Saturday. Tomorrow, Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy
Week. (Get a
breakdown of Holy Week from the Department of Christian Education of the
Orthodox Church in America.
    Western Christians continue to count through Holy Week to reach their total of 40 days.

SUNDAY, Christians
begin Holy Week with Palm Sunday—in commemoration of the day Jesus entered Jerusalem and was greeted by people who lay down small
tree branches before him. (Check out Wikipedia’s
page to learn more
.) By riding into Jerusalem on his donkey, Jesus
fulfilled a hundreds-year-old Old Testament prophesy as the messiah, according to the Christian reading of the Bible.
    In many Christian churches, palm
leaves—or whatever leaves are native to trees in a church’s region—are
distributed to church members (some Orthodox Christians use olive
branches). In symbolism, the faithful accept the palms. Many tie them into
crosses in their homes and await the following year’s Ash Wednesday,
when the palms are burned to make more ashes. (Learn
more about the Catholic tradition at
Or, at
    (Did you know that in India, Christian
sanctuaries are decorated with marigolds on Palm Sunday? Or that in
Italy and Mexico, some Christians use the palms to weave ornate,
elaborate figures? Learn how to
braid your own elaborate crosses, or even a crown of thorns, courtesy of
    Carrying palms is a custom that dates back
thousands of years. Many Western Christian clergy  wear vestments of red on Palm Sunday, as a symbol of  the blood that would be shed by Jesus during the coming
week. Many Eastern Christian officials wear green vestments, and this is
one of 12 major feasts of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
    Are you
looking for additional ways to mark Palm Sunday? Try this neat craft page,
or eat figs—it’s believed that Jesus ate figs after he entered into



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