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Dharmacracy in Mental Health

This article is part of the opinion column – Beyond Occident – where we explore a native perspective on the Indian diaspora.

A recent study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that 20% of all teen hospitalizations in the US between January 1 and March 31, 2021, were due to psychiatric emergencies. In addition, a University of California San Francisco study found a “75% increase in children requiring immediate hospitalization for mental health needs” in 2020 over a year before. The study also found a “130% increase in the number of children requiring hospitalization for eating disorders” and a 66% increase in the number of suicidal adolescents (ages 10-17) in the emergency department.  

The Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a ‘State of Emergency’ for youth mental health.

 The last 18 months have been one of the toughest for kids in recent times, no matter how we look at it. However, we can also argue that most of the pain and suffering inflicted upon them during this period have resulted from politics and unscientific policies of school closing. Kids stuck at home; not able to go to school for the whole year; not able to play sports, participate in tournaments, plays, and musicals; not able to visit family and grandparents; not able to see faces hidden behind masks; not able to attend or host birthday and graduations parties —  they all have had a cumulative effect on children’s mental health and overall wellness. 

Add to this the news of socio-political strife; violence; lawlessness; non-stop pictures and videos of burning funeral pyres being played on our TV sets, newspapers, and social media feeds; scarcity of oxygen and other medical supplies for COVID patients, including our friends and family. These combined, present a commentary of a stark, bleak, and gloomy situation of the world we live in.  

How we explain what is going on around us depends on the way we look at the world. Most of our present-day ideas have been shaped by the Western worldview. This worldview is predominantly atomistic that uses binaries such as ‘either/or,’ ‘true/false,’’ ‘left/right,’ ‘for/against,’ ‘liberal/conservative. These antagonistic binaries are in constant conflict with each other. It is also a worldview of excluded middle. 

The ordering of the world, in this worldview, is anthropocentric. Human beings are considered the central entity of the universe where only human life has intrinsic value. In contrast, other entities are resources that may justifiably be exploited for the benefit of humankind. 

On the other hand, dharma is the universal law that connects the individual to the rest of the world in a quantum way — that is, it is the same righteous law that binds each element of the cosmos. The Mahabharata defines dharma in the following manner:

  • dharma is so-called because it sustains and upholds the people: hence whatever sustains is dharma.
  • dharma is propounded to secure the good of all living beings: hence, whatever fulfills that aim is dharma.
  • What comes from the love for all beings is dharma. This is the criterion to judge dharma from adharma.

dharma is the spirit of Indic culture. The very essence of a Dharmic life lies in maintaining the equilibrium of the opposites. The opposites, including good and evil, are seen as complementary. Neither can be denied or completely suppressed without running the risk of creating dissonance, both within individuals and in the world around them. This duality of opposites creates and maintains the equilibrium throughout cosmology.

dharma sees conflicts and dissonance as ‘burdening of the Earth,’ which is the disturbing of the equilibrium at multiple levels.  These conflicts are a product of one’s relationship with oneself (not all conflicts are with others) and other elements of the cosmos. Hence a solution must also arise from that relationship. For inner conflicts, one has to look within oneself. Blaming others doesn’t help. Beyond self, as the dissonance and chaos get louder and stronger, the earth gets even more burdened. When the burden gets to unbearable levels, an avatar takes place to unburden the earth finally. Everything starts again afresh. The Dharmic time is circular (kalachakra), not linear.

The concepts of dharma, karma and klesha form the understanding of the cause of all sufferings. The doctrine of karma is defined as the result of an individual’s intentional action through body, speech, or mind. One of the most potent assumptions of the doctrine of karma is that one is in complete control of his/her destiny. Therefore, whatever happens to an individual is a predictable outcome of his/her own choices over time. The theory of karma also states that life does not end at the death of the physical body, and the result of one’s action can be felt in the next lives to come. 

The ultimate goal of life, according to dharma, is Self-realization — the realization of one’s inner Self.

In the Dharmic tradition– Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism– meditation, yoga, and the interplay of philosophy and life occupy a vital place. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra (2nd century BCE) explains the yogic techniques to overcome klesha (human misery) and achieve the desired union between self and Brahman, the Supreme Consciousness. The source of klesha is raga, the attachment to worldly desires, and dvesh, the repulsion we feel towards objects that give us unhappiness. The two, combined with avidya (ignorance), asmita (ego), and abhinivesh (attachment to life and fear of death), are the sources of all kleshas.

dharma has a lot to offer in every possible field and situation, including mental health. But, unfortunately, we tend to gloss over the basic Dharmic tenets and their profundity. However, these tenets take on new meanings when applied with conviction during extraordinary uncertainty and trouble. 


Avatans Kumar is a columnist, public speaker, and activist. He frequently writes on the topics of language & linguistics, culture, religion, Indic knowledge, and current affairs in several media outlets.


 

Prakriti and Shakti: The Nature of Feminine Divinity in Hinduism

This article is part of the opinion column – Beyond Occident – where we explore a native perspective on the Indian diaspora.

With over one billion followers worldwide, Hinduism, also known as the Sanatan Dharma, is the third-largest faith tradition globally. It is also the oldest tradition with an unbroken and recorded history of over 5,000 years. Hinduism is also the only significant faith tradition that recognizes and then manifests through various rituals and worship, the divine form of feminine. In Hindu cosmology, both feminine and masculine forms are accorded equal status. 

Womanhood is generally associated with the notions of fertility, benevolence, and bestower in most indigenous traditions. As symbolic of life and fecundity, motherhood is viewed and celebrated, both conceptually at an abstract level and manifest, in fertility rites throughout the indigenous ‘pagan’ cultures. Hinduism being one of them, is not different in this aspect. 

In the Hindu tradition, the notion of Divine is a complex interplay between purusha — the Self, the Spirit — and prakriti — Nature, the undifferentiated matter of the Universe. In addition, shakti (power) is recognized as the energizing principle of the Universe. It is feminine, and it represents both creation and divinity. It embodies the primordial Energy of the Universe – the ādi shakti.

In the Hindu scheme of things, the notion of purusha and prakriti represents the opposite creative tension that renders them inseparable. They end up being the mirror image of each other. On the other hand, brahmana is the ultimate Consciousness that transcends all qualities, categories, and limitations. 

Mata (mother) Sita, one of the main characters of the epic Ramayana by Valmiki, embodies prakriti. According to Lavanya Vemsani, a professor of Indian History and Religion at Shawnee State University, the symbolism of nature prakariti in Sita’s life events is “unmistakable.”  The spontaneous nature of Sita, Vemsani writes, “can be understood as the natural expression of prakriti (nature), symbolized by forest and female spontaneity in classical Indian literature, especially the Ramayana.” 

According to the legend, Sita was born out of the earth, not from a womb (ayonija). She is described as the daughter of bhūmi (the earth). In the Ramayana, when Raja Janak, Sita’s father, plowed his fields, she sprang up from behind the plow. This, according to Vemsani, “brings to mind the spontaneous sprouting of plant life from the earth in its most natural form, as in the wild… [and thus] the birth of Sita indicates… her closeness to the spontaneous life and her affinity to nature (prakriti).” 

Sita spent 14 years of her life in a forest as vanavāsa (forest exile). During this period, several events such as Sita being dragged off by Viradha, the proposal by Shurapanakha, and the “golden deer” — represent the unfulfilled desires of forest dwellers. Though these desires result in a loss for Sita, it is “in conformity with the nature of the forest where one can desire anything that is likable, spontaneously,” writes Vemsani. 

Sita’s end of life is as natural as her birth as she returns to the earth upon her death. 

On the other hand, shakti is seen as the abstract supreme creative power, the cosmic Mother, out of which all creations come about. It is a universal energy force. While the ultimate reality in the universe is considered and conceived as a powerful, creative, active, and transcendental female, it manifests itself in various forms: mother goddess, warrior goddess, etc. As Uma or Parvati, she is the gentle caring consort of Shiva. As Durga, she rides a tiger which represents the ego and arrogance that must be tamed. In shakti form, the feminine divinity is seen as the fierce savior and protector of the cosmos when in danger. 

Durga (Image from VedicFeed)
Durga (Image from VedicFeed)

Hindu epics are full of Devi (goddesses) stories of the protectors of the righteous and the destroyer of enemies. Kaikeyi and Satyabhama accompanied their husbands to the battlefield. Chandragupta Maurya (century 3rd BCE), the founder of one of the largest empires of the Indian subcontinent, had his bodyguard corps comprised exclusively of women. 

The underlying duality of the Hindu feminine divinity allows us to understand the role of women in Hindu society. This role is conceptualized through shastras (treatises), puranas (legends and lore), and itihasa (record of important events). Through examples of behavior, these texts establish explicit role models. However, a general rule of thumb in interpreting Hindu texts is to avoid exclusive reliance on foreign translations and academic works as they are often fraught with inaccuracies.  


Avatans Kumar is a columnist, public speaker, and activist. He frequently writes on the topics of language & linguistics, culture, religion, Indic knowledge, and current affairs in several media outlets.


 

Dharmic Environmentalism

This article is part of the opinion column – Beyond Occident – where we explore a native perspective on the Indian diaspora.

The environment is a universal concern.

Universal environmentalism, however, is myopic, monopolistic, and hegemonic. It overlooks native and Indigenous solutions and, as such, is a recipe for disaster. 

We all relate to our surroundings differently. Present-day environmentalism, however, is based on the Western anthropocentric approach. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, anthropocentrism as a religious and philosophical doctrine holds that “human life has intrinsic value while other entities (including animals, plants, mineral resources, and so on) are resources that may justifiably be exploited for the benefit of humankind.”

The destruction of ancient paganism was a turning point in environmentalism. Before the advent of Christianity, both as a religion and as a political power, there was no distinction between nature and the divine in the widespread pagan societies. Pagans believed in God’s transcendence in the elements of nature. The notion of the ‘sacred grove,’ however, is an alien concept in the West. Moreover, Marxism, Liberalism, neoliberalism, etc., too are an extension of the same anthropocentric ideology. They regard humankind as central and the most important in the world. 

What is considered modern and scientific in our day-to-day lives today, is based primarily on Christian theology. Implicit faith in perpetual progress dominates our lifestyle, our habits of action, and our planning for the future. Man’s destiny, within this paradigm, is to be hopeful of a future affected by science, technology, a promise of more progress, and doomsday prophecies. 

Modern technology too ends up being a means to an end. As the attitude and the will to exert dominion over nature becomes all the more urgent, the more technology threatens to slip from human control. We end up empowering our political class as they promise to make things better with newer progressive technologies as well as with catchy phrases and slogans.

Such thinking was unknown either to the pagan Greco-Roman antiquity or to the indigenous civilizations of what came to be known as the Orient. Indigenous care for nature goes much beyond the shrill of environmentalism. Such care is deeply rooted in culture, “religion,” and spiritualism. Native cultures, such as Hinduism, have a long history of living in harmony with their surroundings. They are mindful of ecological limits, constraints, and boundaries of nature and do not take from nature more than what is needed. There is an element of reverence towards the earth and other elements of nature that guides them. Native cultures have developed a complex system of using and preserving the ecology. Native American communities’ use of low-intensity controlled burns, regenerative harvesting, etc are examples of native environmentalism. 

Bishnoi Woman (Image from Permaculture News)

As for Hindus, much before any modern-day environmental protocol was ever signed, it is the Bhoomisuktam (hymn of the Mother Earth) of the Atharva Veda that provides a framework for environmentalism. Composed more than 3,000 years ago, Bhoomisuktam is considered the oldest environmental protocol. The Sukta is composed of 63 verses. These verses provide a framework of understanding as well as respecting Mother Earth and her environment. The Sukta recognizes the Earth for all her gifts such as plants and herbs; rivers and cultivable land for food; and animals for milk, honey, etc. But going a step further, the invoker of the verses declares that despite availing all those boons, he does not intend to hurt Mother Earth in any manner whatsoever. The Sukta gives to Mother Earth an assurance of rational utilization of her resources. 

Much of our interaction with the elements of nature, according to Hinduism, is guided by Dharma: the rules of ethical behavior. Such behaviors are guided not by rights, but by obligations. Pankaj Jain in his book Dharma and Ecology of Hindu Communities describes three communities in India that have actively and consciously worked to preserve and protect the environment as part of their cultural and religious ideology. Those communities include the Swadhyayis, Bishnois, and Bhils.

The Swadhyayis disavow environmentalism. Their mission is “to generate and spread reverence for humans, animals, trees, earth, nature, and the entire universe in general.”

Similarly, the Bishnoi community was founded by a 15th century Guru Jambheshwara who spread the teachings of conservation and living in harmony with nature. Bhils, on the other hand, have protected their sacred groves for generations. 

According to Indic environmentalist and the author of the book Good News India, DV Sridharan, “one doesn’t restore nature, one just keeps a vigil against interruption of Nature’s relentless act of creating the fair and rightful balance.” Hindus believe that when the imbalance reaches a critical point and equilibrium is broken beyond redemption, an avatār ‘unburdens’ the Earth.

Unless the ecological concerns do not empower individuals and communities worldwide to find their indigenous solutions at a more local level, the answer to such concerns will always evade us.


Avatans Kumar is a columnist, public speaker, and activist. He frequently writes on the topics of language & linguistics, culture, religion, Indic knowledge, and current affairs in several media outlets.

Eastern Dreams on Western Shores: Aditya Patwardhan

From Indian engineer to international filmmaker, Aditya Patwardhan is making a mark in Hollywood and we need to keep an eye out for him. Aditya is rare – his filmmaking combines aspects of engineering, music, cinematography, and multilingualism. 

Relocating from India to LA to pursue his passion, Patwardhan has worked on a multitude of projects, from documentaries to series pilots and shorts; some of his works included Kiski Kahani (music director), Red House by the Crossroads (director), Red Souls (director) and are in international markets including in the US, India, Baltic and Eastern European countries, and South America. 

Though it may seem that the skills between the two careers are non transferable, the Indian diaspora might disagree. Indian culture is entrenched in the arts and it can be traced back to one of the first comprehensive books on performing arts, Natya Shastra (NS), written in 200 BCE by Bharat Muni. Far beyond the theatrics, the NS is ingrained in almost every aspect of Indian society. It has influenced Indian sculpture, architecture, painting, poetry, day-to-day normal conversation, forming the connection between Indian mathematics and music. So when Aditya felt drawn towards filmmaking, it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. 

Aditya confesses that switching from engineering to films was borne out of a natural subconscious process. It was during his time as an undergraduate in engineering college that he created a few ‘zero-budget’ musical videos, with his friend and music composer, Hiren Pandya. 

He took a bite into filmmaking and liked the taste. 

Graduating from engineering college, Aditya knew his calling but the path wasn’t linear. 

Aditya got a big break in 2013 during the Vidhan Sabha (state legislature) elections in the Indian state of Rajasthan. He worked in the IT and social media department of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). His group ran a very successful social media campaign and the BJP won in a landslide. From IT to social media, Aditya began deviating from the standard.

It was during his time working in Social Media Management that Aditya came into contact with a musician and composer, Gaurav Bhatt. Gaurav, a Jaipur-based musician who had trained in the famous Bhatt Gharan, had composed a few Hindi songs and was looking for someone to help popularize them on YouTube. The two collaborated and created a music video. Grainy images shifting through a dreamlike narrative, overlaid with the poignant Indian classical fusion melody of Garauv Bhatt created magic; it received considerable attention and was featured in local newspapers and TV, including The Rajasthan Patrika and The Times of India

 “The success I received in these low-cost music videos gave me the confidence to enter into filmmaking professionally,” Aditya fondly recounts.

Newfound success and a heavy dose of determination brought Aditya to Hollywood. Eager to learn the tricks of the trade, he enrolled in the Masters in Film and Media Production program in the Los Angeles branch of the New York Film Academy. His thesis – ‘Red House by the Crossroads’ – a film about a Jewish family in 1970s Poland who were facing the backlash of the Nazi era occupation – culminated in a showcase at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.  

Aditya hasn’t looked back since.

He is versatile and diverse, much like the background he comes from. His documentary ‘Eastern Shores of the Western World’ explores “cultural, linguistic, and genetic similarities between India and Eastern Europe.” And in the same breath, he has made films with social and environmental causes. In his soon to be released ‘Rivers: The Upstream Story’, he takes on the issue of river-water depletion through a civilizational lens. 

Filmmakers, like Patwardhan, with a voice and cultural competence are filling the gaps in global cinema. Aditya Patwardhan is slowly becoming a household name, as he continues his journey of Eastern dreams on Western shores. 

Afters spending several years in IT, Avatans Kumar now works as a Columnist and PR professional.  Avatans frequently writes on the topics of Indic Knowledge Tradition, Language, Culture, and Current Affairs in several media outlets.

Edited by Assistant Editor, Srishti Prabha.