Religious Hindus I’ve known often love hyperbole. They love wailing at the feet of statues of deities. They love insentient states in which one’s eyes roll back in supposed ecstasy.
They love tales of spiritual powers. They are prone to enthusiastically proclaiming every old guy with flowly robes and a long beard a saint. They throw the word “enlightened” around like a smurf ball toss on a low gravity planet.
masters of irony
In my experience, people from India in general are also the planet’s masters of irony. They do almost everything with a wink and a nod.
Westerners mostly fail to recognize this irony as we earnestly attempt to discover, or sometimes just imitate, the supposed devotion and exaltation we see in our Indian counterparts.
Oftentimes our friends “over there” are just enjoying their own display.
Throwing yourself wantonly at the feet of a sindoor-smeared deity while shouting “Maa! Maa!” can be the Hindu over-the-top equivalent of modestly (and quietly) genuflecting in church. You do it because it’s fun and it’s the done thing.
But we take this ferverous play ever so seriously and secretly feel ashamed if we aren’t feelin’ it.
Worse, we fool ourselves into believing we are feeling it, instead of honestly investigating our actual condition.
show me the mantra!
Our superficial yet earnest relationship to outer forms of worship and our superficial knowledge of the traditions we engage in leave us vulnerable.
One time while teaching a meditation workshop at a yoga studio, a young man cornered me during a break. He stood before me, staring into my eyes.
“Give me the mantra to raise my kundalini!” he demanded with a defiant glare.
I learned a bit of his backstory. He was from Germany and had been studying with an Indian emigre teacher.
The teacher had been “preparing” his protege for a kundalini awakening for years (while charging for lessons), promising that when the time was ripe, he would impart the secret Tantrik kundalini-raising mantra.
However, surprise, surprise, the teacher eventually dumped his protege, claiming that the student was not dedicated enough to receive the (non-existent) mantra.
Cultural appropriation is ignorance
I have to give props to the teacher who was banking on his correct perception of the incorrect and un-nuanced version of Indian Tantra that this student had literally bought into.
In general, spiritual teachers from India have a more sophisticated understanding of how Westerners are participating in and (mis)interpreting Tantra and Hinduism than Westerners have of those traditions. Our naiveté can and will be used against us.
the proper use of hyperbole
Spiritual hyperbole, though, is a respectable teaching method in Indian and Tibetan traditions.
Exegesis means a protocol for reading texts or a method of interpretation. Hyperbole is used in Indian Tantra and elsewhere to impress important points on the aspirant.
Academics and students of Hindu traditions generally know this, but if you don’t, it can lead to a lot of misunderstanding.
Let’s say I am driving a car, and you are a passenger. If I am about to rear-end someone, and you just quietly tap on my shoulder, I am unlikely to react by slamming on the brakes. But if you shout “STOP!!”, I might stop. (The former actually happened to me. Luckily no one was hurt.)
Likewise, if you read in a spiritual teaching text that it is a good idea to keep vows you have made to your Guru, that will not make much of an impression.
But if the text says, “You will end up in a cold hell for 10,000 lifetimes if you break these vows,” you might keep them.
Later on, if you become disillusioned with the teachings, you might think how stupid it is to be told you are going to hell.
You might write that on Facebook. Or even write an article complaining about the dumb and controlling tradition you used to be in, using such gems of hyperbole as evidence. But what you were actually encountering were texts that require an unfamiliar brand of exegesis.
Deploying culturally informed methods of reading: “You will end up in a cold hell” really means: “We know you’re a slacker like everyone else, but it’s very important for you to keep your vows if you want the fruit of your practice!”
Once we understand what is required of us, we too can don subtle, ironic smiles and enjoy the dramatic flair along with our Indian friends.
Even though the process of self-realization is built-into nature irrespective of culture, you might want to pay attention to cultural differences if you want to engage with Tantra or Hinduism in the most intelligent and fruitful way. And if you don’t, you will be reborn as a banana slug.
P.S. I do have the secret, kundalini-raising mantra. Send five bucks right now.