Archives For Kulasundari Devi

Namaste, Wild Hunt readers! Many thanks to Jason for his invitation to bring some perspective on a subject that is more and more relevant – the issue of worshipping Hindu deities as a Pagan.

As the Pagan community grows, so do the various approaches to deity and ritual. While much of the Pagan world is involved in creating new traditions, reconstructing ancient ones, and everything in between, there are more and more Pagans who are drawn to living traditions such as the various African diasporic religions, Buddhism, and Hinduism. These practitioners typically want to maintain their basic philosophy and approach to religion, which often allows them to worship many deities in a spontaneous, eclectic way, and allows them to connect with many different Gods and Goddesses, while also incorporating deities or practices they find themselves drawn to.

One of the issues that comes up when this happens is appropriation. Cultural appropriation happens when someone from one culture borrows symbols, rituals, and practices from another culture without fully understanding the context, meaning, and complexity of those things, and then passes them off as one’s own, or uses their own interpretations and then passes them off as “authentic.” This becomes especially problematic when dealing with interactions between members of cultures with historical roots in colonialism, slavery, and exploitation.

With Hinduism, we often see Gods and Goddesses appropriated to give an “exotic” feel to a product, and in a religious sense when someone wants to worship a Hindu deity, but believes that their personal interpretation and experience of the deity is all that matters, and use pop cultural knowledge to essentialize these deities (i.e. Ganesha is reduced to a “remover of obstacles,” or Lakshmi becomes a “money goddess”). While putting a Hindu deity on a T-shirt isn’t so culturally offensive like putting one on a toilet seat is, plenty of my fellow Hindus are rightfully upset about the various appropriations of our religion, as it often betrays a simple disrespect or ignorance of Hindu culture and Indian history and philosophy, or a sense of entitlement to colonize and appropriate important symbols and deities.

From my own experience talking to and teaching people in the Pagan community about Hindu worship and deity, I have seen how paralyzing the fear of cultural appropriation can be, and I’ve also seen plenty of positive and negative sycretism. Some people feel drawn to these deities, but don’t know where to begin, and don’t want to step on any toes while they’re learning, so they never pursue it. I’ve seen plenty of neo-Pagans doing a great job at respectfully approaching Hindu deities and incorporating Hindu worship into their own with some amount of care and respect. At the same time, I’ve also seen a few neo-Pagans worship Hindu deities with some bravado, and have seen and heard about some rituals that are at best ignorant and at worst blatantly disrespectful of Hindu traditions and culture.

So what does it mean to worship a Hindu deity? Can you worship a Hindu deity if you are not Indian or Hindu? If you can, what does it require? I’ve run into a lot of spoken (and unspoken) misconceptions in the Pagan community around these questions, and I’d like to share some of my own perspective by debunking three common myths. You’ll also find this discussion relevant to approaching other living traditions.

Myth #1: You have to be Hindu to worship Hindu deities.

There are some very orthodox Hindus who believe that you have to be an Indian to be a Hindu, and there are many temples that bar entrance to non-Hindus (generally meaning non-Indians, but that can also mean those of low-caste, or who have any known non-Hindu ancestry). But there are also plenty of Hindus who believe that it’s what is in your heart that makes you a Hindu, not your nationality or the color of your skin. Hinduism at its best is incredibly accepting of many ways of knowing Truth. There are also plenty of temples that welcome people from all religions to worship the deities housed there, with a recognition that no one can put a limit on God, or on the human heart.

So, you don’t have to be Hindu to worship Hindu deities, but you do have to have respect for Hindu traditions and culture if you decide to become a devotee of a particular deity.

For example, I am a student of classical Indian music, and I can relate to you countless examples of Muslim music masters who were devout Muslims, but nevertheless worshipped Hindu deities, often through heartfelt religious songs and Sanskrit prayers. In the same way, if you are a neo-Pagan and you feel drawn to a Hindu deity, it’s important to learn the ways in which that deity is worshipped, so that you can be respectful to the tradition from which it comes.

Learning how to do a simple puja (worship ritual) and sing a couple of simple traditional songs is a good first step. Learning from a qualified teacher within the tradition is a great way to deepen your knowledge and practice, and there are a number of books, free videos, articles, and even email listservs that can help you with the basics. The best way to respectfully incorporate worship of Hindu deities into your own Pagan worship is to put in the time and energy to learn how they are worshipped traditionally.

Myth #2: You have to learn Sanskrit to worship Hindu deities.

I hear this one a lot! Hindu deities are worshipped with Sanskrit, and in order to develop your worship, you should learn a few basic Sanskrit prayers (mantras) to offer to your chosen deity. This is both a sign of devotion to your deity, as well as a sign of respect for the tradition.

But the fact is, most Hindus, regardless of nationality, don’t know Sanskrit beyond the basic chants and mantras they have learned from going to temples or performing simple worship in their own home, and history is full of saints who worshipped deities with ecstatic poetry and songs in their own native language. And most Hindus have small shrines in their homes where they offer very regular, very simple worship.

Sanskrit has two levels of power – the meaning of a given word or phrase, and the vibration created when spoken. Some mantras cannot be translated, but are purely spoken for their vibrational power. Even if you don’t know the meaning of a mantra, speaking it will evoke the power and blessing of the deity for which it was formulated hundreds or thousands of years ago. Thus, it’s important to learn some Sanskrit in order to perform basic worship, both to honor the tradition and to honor the deity properly. But you need not learn the entire language. Just learn the mantras you need to worship your deity, and learn them well so that you can infuse them with your devotion.

Myth #3: I can worship this deity any way I want, because it’s all about my relationship with them, and what I intuit.

This is a tricky one. Intuition is important when working with any deity, but what we see when we look at a symbol (including representation of deity) is informed by our own cultural information. Cultural appropriation happens most egregiously when we adopt symbols from other cultures, and then reassign meaning without regard to their original meaning or purpose. This is why the sacred texts and reputable gurus and teachers are important – they help us to understand the deeper meaning of mantra and ritual, contextualize symbols and experiences, and help us learn how to listen to our highest selves in more meaningful ways.

When we look at the Goddess Kali, for instance, one might see a terrifying Goddess of death and destruction. In fact, many in the Pagan community misconstrue and appropriate Kali as a Crone Goddess, emphasize Her as destroyer even while acknowledging Her role as creator, or essentialize Her as a Goddess of transformation. But this would be a terrible misconception of this Goddess who embodies but is also beyond Maiden, Mother and Crone (in fact, She is nothing less than Infinite Being), who is understood as benevolent and loving in West Bengal, where some of Her most famous temples are, as well as in Kerala, Assam, Bihar, and elsewhere throughout India.

To say it more succinctly, Hindu deities don’t exist without Hinduism. Hinduism doesn’t exist without community. So the best way to understand Hindu deities and offer respectful worship is to actually understand Hinduism and Hindu culture by participating in it. If you haven’t had the benefit of being raised in a Hindu culture, that means you’ll have to spend some time learning about it.

Although it’s uncomfortable to talk about, I also find that there are a surprising number of white Pagans who are afraid to visit Indian temples because they are afraid of being the only white people, not because they are worried about religious differences. This is an important fear to acknowledge and confront, because it goes to the heart of the cultural appropriation problem. If you can’t worship a Hindu deity in the midst of Indian Hindus, if you can’t be yourself and make friends in a community of people who share your devotion to this deity, then how can you claim to really respect the deity and the culture? If you feel uncomfortable, then good! That means you’re probably ready to learn something! Not just about the worship and the community, but about yourself, which is part of both the Hindu and the Pagan journey toward Truth.

I’ll say it again: Hindu deities are not separate from Hindu culture, and have been worshipped in much the same way for thousands of years. Learn and respect the path!

I now consider myself a Hindu, but I have been a practitioner of Goddess spirituality for nearly 20 years, and I started firmly rooted in the Pagan community. I’m also not Indian – I’m of European descent – and so being a Hindu and running a very small Hindu Goddess temple constantly challenges me to learn more and interact fully with the culture and the traditions from which the Hindu tradition comes. But I’m grateful for the generosity and good will of those who have shared their knowledge and their traditions with me, which includes my gurus, teachers, and friends. And I’m committed to helping people of all faiths learn more about respectful, traditional worship in a way that is simple and straightforward for the average devotee.

My own temple is explicitly a Hindu Shakta Tantric temple, and we welcome anyone from any path who wishes to come and worship the Goddess. We also offer a number of articles and a podcast to help both Hindus and non-Hindus learn more about the deeper meanings of deity and worship. There are also plenty of Indo-Pagan groups out there, and you may find that someone has already forged a path that speaks to your own desire to worship Hindu deities within a Pagan context. And finally, Hindu temples are generally welcoming to non-Hindus, as long as you are a respectful devotee. Dress conservatively, and if you don’t know what to do or how to worship, just ask someone to help you. Human beings are generally helpful and generous creatures when asked sincerely, and Hindus are no exception.

Even if you don’t worship Hindu deities, if you feel drawn to deities from a living tradition that is from a culture other than your own, the guidelines above – learn the worship from a qualified teacher, learn the basic prayers, engage in the community of devotees – are good ones to follow. I hope that this has been helpful, and I look forward to seeing the discussion develop!

From June 20th through the 27th I’ll be presenting at the 30th annual Pagan Spirit Gathering, at Camp Zoe in the Ozark Region of Missouri. Because Internet and phone connections aren’t a sure thing out there in the wilderness, I won’t be able to blog as usual. But don’t despair! As I’ve done in the past, The Wild Hunt will be featuring a wide assortment of vibrant, challenging, and innovative voices from within (and sometimes without) modern Paganism while I’m gone. Here’s the run-down of The Wild Hunt’s amazing guest bloggers!

Sunday June 20th – Lee Gilmore

Lee Gilmore is a Lecturer in Religious Studies and Anthropology at California State University, Northridge. The author of “Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual & Spirituality at Burning Man”, she has been in, out, around, and studying the Pagan community (mostly Feri traditions) for the better part of 20 years.

Monday June 21st – The Wild Hunt’s Summer Solstice Post

My usual holiday round-up in honor of Midsummer!

Tuesday June 22nd – Kulasundari Devi

Kulasundari Devi is the president and founder of the Sri Kamakhya Mahavidya Mandir, a non-profit Hindu Shakta Tantric Goddess temple in Alameda, California that operates with the blessing of the renowned Sri Sri Kamakhya Temple in Assam. She is both a practitioner and scholar of Shakta Tantra, and holds a Master’s degree in Philosophy & Religion from the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. In addition to her work with the temple, she is currently pursuing a PhD studying Tantra and Goddess worship in Northeast India, and travels there regularly. Sundari has an extensive background in Goddess spirituality and mysticism of both East and West, which she has practiced for nearly 20 years. You can learn more about the Hindu Goddess, Tantrism, and traditional worship at her website, JaiMaa.org.

Wednesday June 23rd – P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

P. Sufenas Virius Lupus is a founder of the Ekklesía Antínoou (a queer, Graeco-Roman-Egyptian syncretist reconstructionist polytheist group dedicated to Antinous, the deified lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian and related divine figures) and a member of Neos Alexandria. He has published a collection of poetry called “The Phillupic Hymns” (Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2008), as well as a number of essays and poems in the various Bibliotheca Alexandrina devotional volumes to Artemis, Hekate, and Isis and Serapis, with several more due out in the near future (for Zeus, Pan, the Dioskouroi and Ereshkigal). Lupus’ day-job (as a professional academic and adjunct instructor) and general daily life is nowhere near as interesting as any of the above, and is therefore best glossed over!

Thursday June 24th – Jordan Stratford

Jordan Stratford is a priest, screenwriter, filmmaker, and author of books on religion and spirituality.

Having received his Licentiate of Sacred Theology with his ordination as a priest in the Apostolic Johannite Church in 2005, he briefly studied the DMin program at Wisdom University but is currently pursuing Doctorate of Ministry Studies at St. Raphael the Archangel Theological Seminary. He served as the Rector of the AJC’s Regina Coeli Parish in Victoria BC from its founding until 2008.

His work has been cited in college course material (Haverford College) and in doctoral dissertations (Graduate Theological Foundation), and he was interviewed in a feature article on Gnosticism in 2006 in US News & World Report along with NT Wright and Dr. Marvin Meyer. Additionally he has been widely interviewed and featured on blogs, podcasts and websites relating to Gnosticism, Esoteric Christianity, Paganism, New Religious Movements, and the Independent Sacramental Movement.

He is the author of “Living Gnosticism” (Apocryphile, 2007) and an upcoming book on Alchemy for Quest Books.

Friday June 25th – Matthew Ellenwood

Matthew Ellenwood is a music director, voice teacher, and the artistic director of Terra Mysterium Performance Troupe. He is also one of the founders of Brotherhood of the Phoenix a Neopagan order for gay, bisexual and transgender men who love men, where serves as the Senior clergyman for the Order, and the Senior mentor of the Brotherhood’s seminary training program.

Saturday June 26th – Cosette Paneque

Cosette is a reader and a write. She loves technology, coffee, and lip balm. She’s a long-time Pagan avoiding bugs in South Florida. Cosette blogs at From Jupiter, and is outreach coordinator for the Pagan Newswire Collective.

Sunday June 27th – Christian Day

Salem impresario Christian Day has made the Witch City his full-time career and often speaks about Salem and Witchcraft in the media. Hi is the proprietor of two of Salem’s most popular shops, HEX and OMEN, and hosts Salem’s annual Festival of the Dead each October, which includes a psychic fair, dumb supper, and the Official Salem Witches’ Halloween Ball. Every Wednesday night at 9pm, Christian and Salem Strega Lori Bruno host HEX Education on BlogTalkRadio.com and will welcome Jason Pitzl-Waters as the featured guest on the July 7th episode.

Please give all of them a warm and hospitable welcome, I’m certain they will all contribute something special to The Wild Hunt. If all goes well I should be back to my regular posting schedule by Monday June 28th. While I’m gone, my colleague at the Pagan Newswire Collective, Cosette Paneque, will be holding the reigns of admin power. So if there is a blog or comments related issue while I’m gone, please drop her a line. She will also be dropping in Pagan news-items during the week as she sees fit (so feel free to send her story tips as well). My connection to the outside world will be spotty at very best while I’m at PSG, so please keep that in mind, and don’t be offended if I don’t get back to you.