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[Editor’s Note: We welcome our newest columnist Karl E. H. Seigfried. His writing will be appearing monthly on the fourth Saturday of every month. For more on Seigfried’s background and interests, check out his bio page.]

On January 30, lawyer Thakur Chandan Kumar Singh filed a domestic violence case in India against Rāma Dasharathi for mistreatment of his wife Sītā. This would likely have not made anything other than the local news, except for one fact: Rāma is the protagonist of the ancient Sanskrit text known as the Rāmāyaṇa, and he is believed by Hindus to be an incarnation of the god Viṣṇu.

Rāma and Sītā [Public Domain]

Rāma and Sītā [Public Domain]

Composed in India between approximately 300 BCE and 300 CE, and attributed to the poet Vālmīki, the Rāmāyaṇa tells the story of Rāma across 20,000 verses. As a young man, he is wrongfully deprived of kingship and exiled to the forest, where his wife Sītā is abducted by Rāvaṇa, a ten-headed rākṣasa (shape-shifting demon) who wants to add her to his royal collection of wives. With the aid of an army of monkeys, Rāma eventually rescues Sītā from Rāvaṇa’s island kingdom.

However, Rāma doubts whether Sītā has remained chastely loyal to him while in his lustful enemy’s realm. After her lengthy suffering in captivity, she undergoes a trial by fire that proves her innocence and brings the gods to earth as character witnesses. Rāma regains his kingdom, and all is well until he asks one of his advisors to report what his subjects are saying about him. He finds out that conventional wisdom questions his decision to accept Sītā’s innocence and bring her home. Reportedly, the people ask:

How could he take Sītā back into his heart? How could he enjoy pleasures with her when she had been snatched from him by Rāvaṇa and had even sat on his lap? Rāvaṇa had taken her to Lanka and put her in the ashoka grove. She was at the mercy of the rākṣasas. How can Rāma not be repulsed? We shall have to treat our wives in the same way. For whatever a king does, his subjects must do the same.

In an echo of his own unrighteous banishment, Rāma exiles his pregnant wife to the forest. When he later finds out that she has had twin children, he brings her back to undergo another trial of chastity in front of the gods. Sītā has apparently had enough, and calls upon her mother, the earth goddess Mādhavi. The ground opens up, a celestial throne appears, and Sītā disappears into the earth to the applause of the gods.

The Rāmāyaṇa takes place during the Treta Yuga, the second of four declining ages of Hindu cosmology. We are now in the Kali Yuga, the fourth and final age of the time cycle.

Singh’s motivation for bringing the legal case underscores how vibrantly alive the ancient tales are in today’s India. He explained the initial inspiration for the suit to Catch News: “[A] few days back I was present in the court when [the] judge was hearing a domestic violence case. It suddenly struck me that by that logic Rama was the first perpetrator of domestic violence against his wife. If Sita didn’t get justice in [the Treta Yuga], how will women get justice in [the Kali Yuga]?”

When I asked Lavanya Vemsani, Professor of History and Religious Studies at Shawnee State University, about Singh’s case, she said, “I think he is asking the wrong questions here. Indian domestic violence law only came into being a couple of years ago. It cannot be taken back to apply retroactively to anyone who lived a hundred years ago, let alone thousands of years ago. The reach of the law is very limited. It does not even apply to marriages conducted under other religious personal law such as Islamic marriage law and Christian marriage law.”

Singh told Catch News that “Sita was the epitome of [the] perfect wife, [she] went to exile with him and endured all hardships with Rama.” Referring to Rāma’s spurning of Sītā based on the whispered gossip of his subjects, he asked, “How could he leave her on the words of spies who questioned her character?”

Sītā's Exile by Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) [Public Domain]

Sītā’s Exile by Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) [Public Domain]

Utkarsh Patel, Professor of Comparative Mythology at Mumbai University in India, stresses the importance of the ancient text in modern India yet remains suspicious of Singh’s motives. “The Rāmāyaṇa is an important epic in India, and has a strong relationship with the people at large,” he told me. “Such cases are only seen as attention-grabbing episodes and as aberrations. Besides, the majority of the people don’t even get to know of such cases, except for the few who get to notice it in the newspapers.”

On modern India’s relationship with the ancient text, Vemsani comments, “I think this shows that the stories are still considered part of a collective heritage. I think it was in the 1980s, a research scholar carried out a study asking young women about role models. Sītā still won by a large margin against other female characters of the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata.” Asked by Catch News if his filing of the case was simply a publicity stunt, Singh replied, “I know there can be no action taken against Rama. But there should be a debate on it. All I want is justice for [Sītā].”

Patel comments, “While an insignificant percentage of people do question the idea of Rāma being a role model, not many go into such things beyond debates. It’s a curious mix of mythology with faith and belief system. Debates apart, faith exists and the people who question this generally do not matter in the larger scheme of things. However, such questions have always existed, and many different versions of the Rāmāyaṇa have tried to tackle these episodes in different ways. Views and counter-views on such aspects have always existed without affecting the following of the epic. Many authors, especially women, have written on this aspect of Rāma. Time and again, these debates are in the public space.”

Vesmani dismisses the importance of Singh’s suit: “I do not see too much impact. People understand the limitations of modern domestic violence law, and I think they also understand the futility of this case. So this might not have any effect at all other than to sensationalize Rāma and Sītā and provide fodder for media outlets.”

The judge of the district court did not simply throw out the suit out as nonsensical, but took it on its own terms and asked Singh five key questions during the hearing of the case: Who would be punished if the case were successful? Why had Singh only now filed a case for such a long-ago incident? Who will serve as witness? On what date did the offense occur? What is the evidence for the complaint? These questions being fundamentally unanswerable, the case was then thrown out as “not maintainable.”

Despite the judge’s declaration that the suit was “beyond all logic and facts,” there is actually legal precedent in India, including treatment of deities as owners of temples and receivers of temple wealth. In 2010, the Allabad High Court ruled that one-third of the city of Ayodhya belonged to Rām Lalla, the infant form of Rāma. One effect of this decision was that Rāma was officially declared a historical person. In other words, this figure of mythological poetry is now legally a person.

Writing for the Deccan Chronicle, Antara Dev Sen explains: “In Indian law, a Hindu deity can be recognised as a legal person with their own rights and duties, their own worldly possessions and their right to sue or be sued. Given this, it is not absurd that [Rāma] is sued for domestic violence.”

Legal arguments over personhood are familiar in the United States. The Unborn Victims of Violence Act of 2004 addressed the harming or killing of unborn children during a violent crime, defining “unborn child” as “a member of the species homo sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb.” Although the act explicitly excepted abortion, it was seen as moving toward the legal granting of personhood to fetuses – a crucial step for the anti-abortion movement. In both the Indian and the American cases, religious beliefs come into conflict with and affect changes in secular law.

When I asked Vemsani how the Singh case reflects current Hindu ideas about the reality and immanence of deities in the world, she replied, “I think Rāma and Sītā are in a different category by themselves. They are seen as incarnations of Viṣṇu and [his wife, the goddess] Lakṣmī, but in their purely human form. So they exemplify humanity with human worries and concerns. However, as a permanent and final destination Brahma (universal soul) is consistent. The gods and goddesses are path breakers – somehow human in form to help humans reach their final goal (Brahma).”

Could a case like Singh’s be heard in the United States? A 2014 Gallup poll showed that 47% of Americans believe that “the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.” There’s not a lot of wiggle-room in that statement. Gallup also found that 42% of Americans believe that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.” A 2013 Harris poll found that 36% of Americans believe in creationism. If a Biblical character were put on trial in the United States, it is not completely certain that a grand jury consisting of randomly selected citizens would find the notion of legally historicizing mythical figures ridiculous.

Sīta Taken by the Earth Goddess by Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) [Public Domain]

Sīta Taken by the Earth Goddess by Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) [Public Domain]

There have now been three separate suits brought against Singh for defamation of Rāma and for offending the Hindus who believe in him. Fellow lawyers have requested that Singh’s license to practice law be canceled. In response, Singh told the BBC, “I expected some objection but did not anticipate that my colleagues would turn against me. I was only talking about justice and had no intention of hurting anybody’s religious sentiments.” In a pattern familiar from overheated online dialogue on religious and political issues, Mr. Singh has received threatening telephone calls from right-wing groups furious at his filing of the suit against Rāma.

Relevant to these issues is Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, which addresses “Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” It mandates fines and jail time for anyone who, “with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens of India, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class.”

In 2014, the law made headlines when it was used to pressure Penguin Books to withdraw and destroy all copies of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History. Patel says, “Such and many other laws are open to misinterpretation, and frivolous suits will always be filed in a democracy, whether we like it or not. However, in the case of Doniger’s book, Penguin did not even get into challenging the case. If they had challenged the ‘insult,’ the outcome could have been different. The book was simply pulped without a court order. The book has been published by another publisher and is selling in the open market.”

The issue with Section 295A is not whether any statement made is true or not, whether it is a quote from an ancient religious text or not, but only whether it outrages or insults the feelings or beliefs of a religious group. Try scrolling through Twitter or Facebook and counting how many times you see a post expressing the claim of a person of faith that their feelings or beliefs have been insulted. Then imagine what would happen if each of them brought a lawsuit against the individual they felt had caused this sense of insult.

Patel told me that although people in India “do have a lot of faith in such texts and many treat them as history (itihasa) and not mythology, it doesn’t go beyond debates and discussions, in certain news channels and on the Internet. Such cases are treated as mere gimmickry and nothing else, and nobody gives it any importance.” However, there are plenty of Americans who want their religion to have a stronger role in the secular and legal world. A 2015 study by the American Bible Society found that 51% of adult Americans felt that the Bible had too little influence on U.S. society. Also last year, Public Policy Polling found that 32% of respondents “support making Christianity the official religion of the United States.” 23% thought that “Islam should be illegal in the United States.”

According to Patel, secularism can withstand challenges from the faithful: “Secularism was a decision taken by the forefathers of the freedom movement more than six decades back. A section of people are of the opinion that it has only done harm, but the majority still feel that if there is a problem, then it needs correction and [they do] not question the idea of secularism itself. In the modern context, there does seem to be a dilemma of sorts.”

We have also seen members of the highest court in the United States express legal opinions perfectly in keeping with the key principle of Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code: it does not matter whether a litigant is right or wrong about any given subject, as long as what they believe to be true is grounded in religious belief. This seems to substantially lower the burden of proof for the religious litigant. In practice, it removes it completely.

In the 2014 Supreme Court case of Sebelius v Hobby Lobby, a brief submitted by a large group of physicians and medical organizations unequivocally stated that “the scientific evidence confirms that the FDA-approved forms of emergency contraception are not abortifacients,” that, by definition, the drugs and devices in question prevent implantation rather than terminate an existing pregnancy. The brief also reminded the court that “First Amendment jurisprudence maintains a distinction between scientific facts which are verifiable, and matters of protected religious belief which are more personal.”

In contradiction to scientific fact, Judge Antonin Scalia accepted the assertion of Hobby Lobby’s Evangelical Christian owners that the pregnancy-preventing measures were abortifacients, and he referred to them as such. The court’s majority opinion begins by stating that “according to [the Hobby Lobby owners’] religious beliefs the four contraceptive methods at issue are abortifacients.” Given that the case was decided in favor of Hobby Lobby, the court gave greater weight to religious beliefs about the categorization of a class of drugs and devices than to verifiable medical facts.

When I mention Singh’s case against Rāma to non-Hindu Americans, they usually react with the same sort of bemusement that they exhibit when I mention the belief in elves of modern Icelanders. “Imagine living somewhere we people still believe in this stuff!” However, in light of American beliefs regarding Biblical literalism and the role of religion in secular society, and given the Supreme Court’s preferential view of religious beliefs on scientific subjects, are we that far from serving court papers to Christ or bringing suits over outraged religious feelings? If an individual declares that God is “using” him to fight homosexuality through baked goods in a nation where 63% of adults have an “absolutely certain” belief in God’s existence, why not charge the deity with incitement in the resulting court case? 38% of Americans claim that God has told them what to do. Maybe it’s time for him to speak in his own defense.

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FT. MEADE, Md. – A civilian dental technician alleges that she has suffered religious discrimination, a hostile work environment and was subsequently fired after filing a formal complaint. Deborah Schoenfeld said that her Evangelical coworkers and managers at Epes Dental Clinic called her a witch, discriminated against her religion, and called her practice of yoga and meditation ‘satanic.’

Deborah Meade [Courtesy Photo]

Deborah Meade [Courtesy Photo]

In a recent interview with The Wild Hunt, Schoenfeld described her faith as Hindu, but has also been studying Wicca for 2 years. She said that the harassment began in April 2015 and that both military and civilian coworkers and managers took part in the problem. Schoenfeld described this harassment as such:

  • Employees were expected to attend Evangelical religious events and were asked to pray that SCOTUS would rule against same sex marriage.

  • Predominately Christian music was played in the office during work hours.

  • Schoenfeld was told that, due to her practice of meditation, she was bringing demons into the office.

  • Her practice of yoga was called “satanic.”

  • She was called a “Hindu witch.”

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) has sent a letter to US Air Force officials, notifying them that the MRFF is “immediately providing aggressive advocacy services for Ms. Schoenfeld as a MRFF client pursuant to her resolute quest to obtain a just resolution to her shocking complaints.” The MRFF also said it has filed a formal complaint with the military Equal Employment Opportunity (EO) channel.

As explained by Schoenfeld, she first reported these instances to her chain of command, but received no help. Then, on Sept 2, she filed a formal complaint regarding the harassment. Later that day she was fired for “using profanity against coworker.” Her manager declined to name the coworker or further define the situation on which they had based the firing.

Schoenfeld said that this harassment and the subsequent firing has been stressful. “I have been trying to still deal with the whole complexity of the situation as a whole. If it were not for my Pagan friends and for all the support from outsiders, I don’t think I could have kept myself going. Even my yoga teacher roots for me saying, ‘I’m glad you keep on coming to yoga, it will ground you.’ ”

She also added that the firing itself was a complete surprise. Schoenfeld explained that she had worked very hard and had been asked to perform two jobs at once. Even with the increased workload, she was praised for the quality of her performance,“I even got an award for patient safety back in March 2015. My non-abusive co-workers would give me accolades for helping them with their extra patients, so they would not have to work through lunch or stay after work. This has been my first military job, and the first time in all my career I have ever felt this type of discrimination.”

In an off-the-record interview with the Air Force Times, two of Schoenfeld’s former coworkers confirmed that the harassment against Schoenfeld took place and that they themselves were threatened with termination if they were to back her claims. Additionally noted in the article, those two same co-workers added that a deep suspicion of Hinduism was the motivation for the harassment.

According to USAF regulations, all persons in leadership positions “must ensure that their words and actions cannot reasonably be construed to be officially endorsing or disapproving of or extending preferential treatment for any faith, belief or absence of belief.” Violations can be charged as a felony under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

[Courtesy http://www.ftmeade.army.mil/]

[Courtesy http://www.ftmeade.army.mil/]

The Air Force District of Washington has received Weinstein’s letter and is looking into the allegations raised, said spokesman Maj. Joel Harper.

The Wild Hunt contacted Ft. Meade Public Affairs, but as of publication we have not received a response back.

After this experience, Schoenfeld said that she now has a different view of religious freedom in the US. “I believe it’s only free for certain of the religions. Polytheists are looked down upon by many faiths, although there are many of us. I do hope that one day the Christian church will realize some of us are really just happy just the way we are.”

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“Time and again, parents and community leaders have recounted to me how the American conception of camp offers an opportunity for a cultural, religious and, in some cases, linguistic immersion with other American Hindu children. This is understood to be all the more important because within the dominant American and Christian culture, Hindus and Hinduism are often exoticized and maligned.” – Shana Sippy, professor of religion at Carleton College in Minnesota, on the value of Hindu-American summer camps for children.

The above quote comes from the recent New York Times article “Building on U.S. Tradition, Camp for Hindu Children Strengthens Their Identity.” In it we meet Neha Dhawan, a Hindu-American woman who says her life was changed by attending “Hindu camp” when she was eleven.

Like many children growing up in a minority religion, she felt set apart from her more mainstream friends. Her holidays were different; her culture was different and she dreaded questions such as “where do you go to church?”

At first Neha did not look forward to summer camp for Hindu children. But eventually she loved doing morning yoga, her hair still cool and damp from the shower. She discovered a favorite bhajan, a Hindu devotional song. She spoke with her peers and their college-age counselors about dealing with stereotypes and racism. “I realized,” she said, “it’s O.K. to be proud of who you are.” Neha is now the director of the Hindu Heritage Summer Camp.

The US has a long tradition of religious or ethnic summer camps for children. According to Professor Sippy, they help to “strengthen the denominational and ancestral identity of young people in a polyglot nation with an enticingly secular popular culture.” Because they are surrounded by their peers, children learn what living their religion looks like for them. They learn how to be more comfortable with their religion which allows them to be more comfortable in mainstream society. If that’s the case, are summer camps something that would benefit Pagan children?

Teens create a pattern using spices before the Rangoli at Sacred harvest Festival. [photo credit - C. Schulz]

Teens create a pattern using spices before the Rangoli at Sacred harvest Festival. [photo credit – C. Schulz]

“As a family, we are a solitary unit. We attend one Pagan Festival every summer, but that is the only exposure they have to us being part of a larger community. I would love for my children to have another opportunity to make those important connections,” says Kristin, a Pagan mother of two who lives in the Chicago area. She says that she would budget through the year to be able to afford sending her children, ages 5 and 8, to a Pagan summer camp and would spend up to $700 a week for a sleep-over style camp. She says not only would children benefit from knowing they aren’t alone, but Pagan communities would also benefit through a focus on instilling Pagan ethics in children.

Ashley Sears, a Pagan mom living in the Minneapolis area, also welcomes the idea of a Pagan summer camp for her three children, ages 15, 13, and 11.“Having raised my kids Pagan since birth, it’s been a struggle to help them find their own “identity” within our faith. We’ve moved all over the country and have been blessed with many Pagan friends and Pagan Parenting groups, but never a chance to expose them to an immersive experience in our faith.”

We sought opinions from many Pagan parents. Other than questions about affordability, there were no parents who were opposed to the idea. One parent did say that he wouldn’t send his children because he didn’t see a need for summer camp and declined to be interviewed. However, he wasn’t opposed to the idea.

Pagan summer camps – past and present
While there appears to have been a summer day camp for Pagan children in the past, there aren’t any operating now. So what options do Pagan children have for a summer camp experience? Not many.

The closest to a Pagan summer camp currently operating are programs like Indigo Camp. These are summer camps with no specific religious take, but with Pagan-friendly components such as spiritual drumming, yoga, and non-violent communication techniques. These camps welcome people of all, or no, religious background. However, they won’t be able to give a child the benefit of being surrounded by those of their same faith.

For a specifically Pagan camping experience, a family could attend a Pagan or Heathen camping festival. These can last from a weekend to a week or longer. Festivals vary in the programs offered specifically to children.  Some are increasing their offerings as more families with children attend.

One of those festivals with a robust child and teen program is Pagan Spirit Gathering. “Every year, Circle Sanctuary [the organization which produces Pagan Spirit Gathering] creates programs for youth of different ages as part of its Pagan Spirit Gathering,” says Rev. Selena Fox, Senior Minister of Circle Sanctuary. She says activities include storytelling, craft projects, playtime, and rituals. She adds, “It is a wonderful way for Pagan children and older youth to learn about Pagan spirituality as well as form friendships with peers.” Rev. Fox asks those with skills in youth programming to please contact her at psg@circlesanctuary.org

Yet these festivals aren’t the same as a summer camp just for children. The children camp and take meals with their parents, not with their peers. The environment is friendly towards them, but wasn’t created just for them.

Another option isn’t a camp experience at all, but an alternative to Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts called SpiralScouts. SpiralScouts was created in 1999 by the Aquarian Tabernacle Church and is coed and nondiscriminatory. SpiralScouts was created to be specifically Pagan, but can be adapted to work with most any faith. Like other scouting groups, it focuses on woodland lore, camping, and outdoor living skills, but also includes the mythos of the ancient world. As of now, SpiralScouts does not host a summer camp and it can be difficult to find a local group.

Challenges in creating summer camps
If there are Pagan parents who want the traditional summer camp experience for their children, why aren’t there any Pagan kids camps available? There are many challenges that a group or organizer would face in setting up a summer camp.

The first is simply numbers. Although the American Religious Identification Study in 2008 reports that there are more Pagans and Wiccans in the USA than Hindus, [582,000 Hindu vs 682,000 Pagan and Wiccans – ARIS 2008 data], Hindus are more homogeneous than Pagans. Paganism isn’t one faith with denominations; it is many different religions with little in common with one another. The largest religion under Paganism, Wicca, is mostly either coven based or solitary, but it isn’t family based – although that may be changing. While Paganism may have the numbers on paper to host summer camps, in reality the number of Pagans practicing one specific religion is still very small. Yet it’s not impossible. There are an estimated 135 Hindu summer camps. That’s one camp for every 4311 Hindu-Americans.

Another challenge is the cost:  the cost to buy or renting land with the facilities for a summer camp; the high cost of insurance for taking care of minors without their parents on site; the cost of employees and volunteers to staff the camp and the cost to parents.

While parents may say they want a summer camp for their children, do they value the idea enough to pay for it? There’s a common misconception that Pagans are economically lower than the general population. Yet data from Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States shows Pagans are slightly higher than the general population in both education and income. The average cost of a summer camp stay is anywhere from $400 to $2000 per week, depending on whether it is a day camp or an overnight camp. In addition, parents need to transport children to and from the camp and pay for supplies. While other religious and ethnic minorities do find the summer camp experience of value enough to support, it’s unclear if the Pagan communities feel the same.

The last challenge is more nebulous – trust. Pagans generally are less trusting of organizations and less inclined to follow traditional organizational processes. While there are benefits of this, the downside can be poor business practices coupled with lack of support from the community, which is a reinforcing cycle. Recent and past sexual abuse within Pagan groups and gatherings, although similar to what other groups of any type face, may also cause some parents to be more cautious in sending their children away to camp.

Do the benefits outweigh the challenges? That’s a question which can only be answered by potential organizers and parents.

“Our children have met other Pagan children, but normally have to hold their faith close to their vest for fear of social exclusion or not being able to answer questions,” says Ms. Sears. “Having a Pagan camp for kids would be an amazing way for our kids [to] freely celebrate their love and faith in the Gods.”

January 14th in India marked the beginning of the Kumbh Mela, the largest religious gathering in the world. Held in full every 12 years, it is an integral festival within Hinduism, one focused on prayer, purification, and spiritual awakening.

“Kumbh is the confluence of all our cultures. It is the symbol of spiritual awakening. It is the eternal flow of humanity. It is the surge of rivers, forests and the ancient wisdom of the sages. It is the flow of life itself. It is the symbol of the confluence of nature and humanity. Kumbh is the source of all energy. Kumbh makes humankind realize this world and the other, sins and blessings, wisdom and ignorance, darkness and light. Holy rivers are the symbols of the lyrical flow of humanity. Rivers are indicators of the flow of water of life in the human body itself. In the human body that is an embodiment of home, nothing is possible without the five elements. The elements – fire, wind, water, earth and sky – symbolize the human body.”

Patrick McCollum in India

Patrick McCollum in India

Pagan chaplain and activist Patrick McCollum has been invited to the 2013 Kumbh Mela, and will participate in ritual activities at the event’s center. The Patrick McCollum Foundation has been posting updates from Patrick in India, and his first Kumbh Mela-centered post is up now.

“I just had the incredible experience of participating in the first blessing of the Kumbh Mela with a small group of India’s foremost saints. I got to sit right in the very front right behind Puja Swami Saraswati on the water’s edge, at the exact point where the worlds most sacred rivers meet at the Sangam.  I had the exquisite honor to bless the first rose petals offered to the river and then participated in each successive blessing.

To grasp the magnitude of this, one needs to understand that of the millions and millions of pilgrims present and of the thousands of spiritual leaders from across the world attending the Kumbh, only our small group were allowed at the actual Sangam.  The millions of other pilgrims as far as you could see, were held back a mile at the closest.  The press used a miniature television camera on a remote control helicopter hovering above us, to film and transmit the sacred moment.

As I entered the river, the swirling waters reflected the light of candles and lanterns residing both on boats and on the ancient Red Fort built by Achabar on the opposite distant shore.

The water was cool but not cold, and the sense of the auspicious moment shot through me as I shared blessings for all humanity and asked for peace between all the peoples of the earth.  And I also shared a blessing for our tired planet itself, praying for rejuvenation and a rebalancing of its resources.”

The 2013 Kumbh Mela will last for 55 days, and is highlighted by a series of ritual baths. That a modern Pagan has been so honored at this event, and is participating directly, is exciting. A moment that will hopefully lead to ever-greater interactions and solidarity between Hindus and modern Pagans in years ahead. You can read all of Patrick McCollum’s updates from India, here. You may also follow the Patrick McCollum Foundation on Facebook. For more background on the Kumbh Mela, the documentary film “Short Cut to Nirvana” gives a sense of the scope and importance of this festival.

We’ll keep you posted with further developments from Patrick McCollum’s trip.

In addition to the ongoing dialog over gender that has defined PantheaCon 2012 for many, there were several other amazing talks, presentations, rituals, and panels that were important to our community, and deserve wider reporting. One of those was a panel discussion between modern Pagans and members of the Hindu American Foundation entitled “Pagans and Hindus Together: One Billion Strong.”

“This panel will discuss ideals held in common by Pagans and Hindus. Panelists will include Patrick McCollum, T. Thorn Coyle, Mihir Meghani and Raman Khanna. Moderated by Amadea. Topics will include: The Sacredness of Nature, The Divine Mother, Advancing Pluralism, and Shared Social Action.”

Author, teacher, and activist T. Thorn Coyle has posted audio of the entire panel at her Elemental Castings podcast page, and I encourage everyone to head over there and download the show. Due to the fact that Patrick McCollum was in India, he couldn’t attend the panel, so I was honored to step in and contribute, weighing in on shared social action between Pagans and Hindus.

Pagans and Hindus Panel. Photo: PNC Bay Area

Pagans and Hindus Panel. Photo: PNC Bay Area

During the panel, I noted several instances where the interests of Hindus and Pagans have coincided, spoke briefly about the 20+ year history of Hindu-Pagan interfaith interactions, and made recommendations as to where our relationship could go in the future. I proposed that perhaps the time had come for our dialog and alliance to take the next step into working directly together in a organization that focused on the rights and concerns of minority religions in the United States. I think that Hindu and Pagans, working with other pluralistic, like-minded, faiths, can create a unique synergy that would enrich both of our communities.

Panelist Mihir Meghani, M.D.; Board Member & Co-Founder of the Hindu American Foundation, touched on our shared commitment to pluralism during the panel, and I think it would be appropriate to quote from some of the guest-post he wrote for The Wild Hunt last year.

“Most importantly, we need to work together more closely. Tremendous challenges loom – the decline in pluralism over thousands of years will take decades if not hundreds of years to reverse. However, challenges present opportunities. The Hindu American Foundation has made pluralism part of its motto “promoting understanding, tolerance and pluralism,” and pluralism is one of the defining characteristics of Hindu and Pagan traditions. Hindus and Pagans can make a lasting contribution to the world by once again promoting pluralism as a core value of society and its individuals – something evidently lacking in the world today in which intolerance is so prominent. We need to challenge ourselves to make pluralism a value similar in respect to values such as honesty and charity. People should be proud to proclaim that they are pluralist – that they revel in and respect the diversity around them. Children should be raised with this value. For the survival of not only our traditions but humanity altogether, we must move from the motto of, “I will tolerate you though you are wrong,” to a true commitment to pluralism.”

These Hindu-Pagan panels at PantheaCon are an important part of building a lasting alliance. I hope that next year we will see even more discussion on concrete moves forward, shared initiatives to make the Hindu voice, and the Pagan voice, heard. I’d like to thank Amadea for inviting to fill Patrick McCollum’s shoes, and my fellow panelists, Thorn, Mihir, and Raman, for an engaging and productive panel. Again, I encourage everyone to download audio of the panel from the Elemental Castings podcast page. There’s so much more there than what I’ve briefly talked about, and it deserves to be heard by any Pagan interested in the future of Hindu-Pagan relations.