How to be Good?

A Chat with a Hindu Pandita

April 19, 2021 Sarah Buckmaster Season 1 Episode 10
A Chat with a Hindu Pandita
How to be Good?
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How to be Good?
A Chat with a Hindu Pandita
Apr 19, 2021 Season 1 Episode 10
Sarah Buckmaster

What does it mean to be a good person according to a Hindu Pandita*? 

We ask Dr. Pandita Indrani Rampersad, the first ever official female priest to be ordained in Trinidad, to share her opinions on being good according to Hindu teachings.  

Dr. Pandita Indrani is a Trinidadian-Indian Hindu, researcher and women’s activist who, in 2013, received Trinidad and Tobago’s national award GOLD for her Outstanding Contribution to The Development of Women’s Rights and Issues. In her professional life, Pandita Indrani has worked as a teacher in Trinidad and New York, as well as a senior journalist. She holds her PhD in Communication and Journalism and continues to work tirelessly to encourage women and girls to derive empowerment from their spiritual identity. Above all, Pandita Indrani is a Peace Advocate who propagates mutual respect as a necessity for harmonious living; and sees cultural identity as a human right

If after listening to that you’d like to learn more about Pandita Indrani, you can find her on Facebook and read more about her in this Hinduism Today article and this interview on Vimeo.

*The word Pandita means Priest, or something more close to Reverend. 

Show Notes Transcript

What does it mean to be a good person according to a Hindu Pandita*? 

We ask Dr. Pandita Indrani Rampersad, the first ever official female priest to be ordained in Trinidad, to share her opinions on being good according to Hindu teachings.  

Dr. Pandita Indrani is a Trinidadian-Indian Hindu, researcher and women’s activist who, in 2013, received Trinidad and Tobago’s national award GOLD for her Outstanding Contribution to The Development of Women’s Rights and Issues. In her professional life, Pandita Indrani has worked as a teacher in Trinidad and New York, as well as a senior journalist. She holds her PhD in Communication and Journalism and continues to work tirelessly to encourage women and girls to derive empowerment from their spiritual identity. Above all, Pandita Indrani is a Peace Advocate who propagates mutual respect as a necessity for harmonious living; and sees cultural identity as a human right

If after listening to that you’d like to learn more about Pandita Indrani, you can find her on Facebook and read more about her in this Hinduism Today article and this interview on Vimeo.

*The word Pandita means Priest, or something more close to Reverend. 

[Podcast Theme Music: upbeat electro/beats]

Sarah Buckmaster  0:03 
Hi everyone, I'm Sarah and this is "How to be Good?" - the podcast that explores what it means to be a good person in today's world. Today I'm talking with Hindu Pandita, Indrani Rampersad.

[Podcast Theme Music]

Pandita Indrani Rampersad  0:18 
"We are not born sinners. We are divinity incarnated in this body, and the purpose of life is to manifest that divinity."

Sarah Buckmaster  0:28 
Dr. Pandita Indrani is a Trinidadian-Indian Hindu researcher and women's activist who in 2013 received Trinidad and Tobago's national award GOLD for her outstanding contribution to the development of women's rights and issues. She is also the first ever official female priest to be ordained in Trinidad. The word 'Pandita' means Priest or something more close to Reverend.

Pandita Indrani Rampersad  0:52 
"There was resistance to women taking up this leadership role. And I was like, but you know, my intellect my knowledge, I am equal to you, and better than many, so why would I not be accepted?"

Sarah Buckmaster  1:13 
In her professional life Pandita Indrani has worked as a teacher in Trinidad and New York, as well as a senior journalist. She holds her PhD in communication and journalism and continues to work tirelessly to encourage women and girls to derive empowerment from their spiritual identity. Above all, Pandita Indrani is a peace advocate who propagates mutual respect as a necessity for harmonious living. And she sees cultural identity as a human right. I loved learning more about Hinduism from Pandita Indrani. She combines sharp intellect with such a playful spirit. And I really hope you enjoy this conversation. It brings me huge joy to introduce you all to Dr. Pandita Indrani Rampersad.

Pandita Indrani Rampersad  1:59 
Namaste, and in the tradition of my ancestors, we also say Ram Ram and Sita Ram. My ancestors in the Caribbean, you know, we've come from India, in colonial times. The first Indians that came here in Trinidad were like 1845, in Guyana 1838, and so on. So it's around that time under British rule in India. My ancestors came mostly from North India - some from South, but the tradition was largely informed by the Ramayana (editors note: Rāmāyana is one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient Indian history, the other being the Mahābhārata. Along with the Mahābhārata, it forms the Hindu Itihasa. The epic, traditionally ascribed to the Maharishi Valmiki, narrates the life of Rama, a legendary prince of Ayodhya city in the kingdom of Kosala.)  And that was written for the, for the layman, the common person, so it was very popular. So our values and our way of life is largely informed by that text. That's why they say Ram Ram. So I greet you in the name of Ram as it were, Sita Ram - I greet you in the name of Sita, Sita being the spouse of Ram.

Sarah Buckmaster  2:58 
Well thank you - and Sita Ram! Now, although it's the third largest religion in the world, many of us outside of India won't know too many details about Hinduism as a belief system because the majority of Hindus - I think over 90% - are based in India. So I thought it'd be a good idea if you could start us off by giving us a grounding in Hinduism so that we can start this conversation with an awareness of the core belief system.

Pandita Indrani Rampersad  3:24 
Traditionally, Hinduism is called Sanatana Dharma, properly, it's called Sanatana Dharma, meaning that Dharma which is everlasting, which is eternal. It's a way of life. For example, let's say you had gravitation, gravity will will not die or go away, it's always gonna be there. So Sanatana Dharma is like those values, those values that are always there. And so you will find it difficult - we are not a tradition of going by any one book. In fact, we have a library of books. So we have revelation in the beginning, through what we call the sruti, with the first revelation given to the rishis at the dawn of creation. And then we have human beings interpreting that revelation to suit the times as you go on.

So the whole thing is about Dharma: that which upkeeps. So like society, what is the Dharma that upkeeps a society? You have your personal Dharma, what is the Dharma, the rules on the conduct that upkeep you as a human being? Your family Dharma:  What is it that up keeps your family? So, you can go like that in circles going from yourself to family, to society to the globe. And that's why you will find in India, women hugging trees and refusing to allow people to cut them. Because they see life in the tree. There is an interconnectedness of life that informs sanatan dharma. It's the main thing. And that's why non-violence is so important to us. Because we see the Creator - that pure consciousness, that pure existence, that pure bliss. The interdependence... we recognise all human life, and all living things, animals and plants, even the plants, that there is life, you know. I remember my mother before worship, they would pick the flowers, and they would ask permission first, before plucking the flowers to use as part of worship. So in their own way they have practices that connect them with their cosmic reality. Now that cosmic reality, that connection, is not explained in "You shall not steal", you shall not do this, or you shall do this. It's not like commands only. Yes, we have those, but it goes more than that. It's an aesthetic way of knowing your reality. And pain and suffering, we should seek not to impose on another in the process, especially in the in the sphere of religion. So oftentimes, we don't like the word religion, because again, it connotes a set of rules and regulations and a book. Whereas our tradition is not like that.

Yes, there are rules and regulations and they go according to your stage in life. Life has been conceptualised in four stages. And generally, let's break up 100 years, we were supposed to for 100 years or more. So after 25, we're supposed to be in the stage of celibacy and education, focus totally on that. 25 to the next quarter of 50 is family life. And then 50, so then we have where the household gives up the home to the - in those days, it would have been the patriarchal kind of setting - to the eldest son, who would continue the tradition you know. They had a whole structure where the joint family existed, it was not the nuclear family. So it was a joint family where the head of the family, the eldest son, would undertake to take care of the whole family.

So we have the four stages of life and the Dharma Code of Conduct differs - of course, there's an overlap across - but they differ. What is my my duty as a as a student to the parent? - treat the mother and the father and the teacher, as a "devata". In English they would say God, but not that God. As a devata meaning a person of great... who is somebody to be revered and worshipped. Right, but not as God. But as somebody in the place of God, you know, we always make a joke: God couldn't come down here to take care of all of us so he sent mothers. There is always that joke in our community.

Sarah Buckmaster  8:55 
So it sounds as if rituals are really important with Hinduism, and there's this priority of it being passed through families. But without the family, are there other ways that this Dharma, this code of conduct, is communicated through the community?

Pandita Indrani Rampersad  9:10 
We have rituals, and we have stories. We have a rich tradition of storytelling, very rich that sometimes Christian missionaries have done great damage to it by interpreting literally. Now we who have received the tradition, we understand what certain things mean, and somebody outside of the traditional who interprets literally does great damage because you are not interpreting the symbols and the deeper meanings behind it. And the connection between you the atman (editors note: Ātman is a Sanskrit word that means inner self, spirit, or soul. In Hindu philosophy, especially in the Vedanta school of Hinduism, Ātman is the first principle: the true self of an individual beyond identification with phenomena, the essence of an individual.) and the source of life, the giver of life that we call God (I'm using that in a limited way, right that we say God)... that connection between the two is the purpose of life. How do we get there? It's like, okay, now today in the world, we are all fighting. One religion says, Okay, I'm going to take the bus to God. One says,I'm going to take my car. The next I'm going to take a bicycle. And Hindus say, whichever way you go, just get there, just focus on that and get there.

So, the strategy then for getting there is determined between you and the parent and the guru, the Acharya, the teacher, the guru, the one who is like your spiritual guide. We are taught as pandits and in the Caribbean, the pandit here does the rituals and just about all the leadership roles in the religious community, and we are taught very early to identify the swadharma of a person (editors note: Swadharma, meaning one's own Dharma, is derived from the words Swa meaning for oneself and Dharma. Swadharma has been explained as the lawful conduct of oneself based on one's ability. It requires one to be aware of one's strengths, abilities and weaknesses. ) meaning your innate nature. We are not all equal. We are not all to zero and then we are going to become this great, fantastic thing. We are all different makeup. A mother has all children, the children are not all the same; she gives the same love, nurtures in the same way, they are not all the same. So we know that they are differences in the nature of the person. So obviously, the pathway to God, to that union, is going to be different. So someone might say, you know, back to yoga, I like I like a lot of love and, and singing and serving community and reaching out, I'm that kind of person. So the guru and the mother will guide in that direction. Now, these are not separate paths, but some of us are more into Jnana - which is knowledge - reading the scriptures and the texts. And Karma Yoga, performing good actions. They are not they are not separate, they are intertwined. But of course, one is going to shine more in your life, as per your nature. So that is determined by the guru helping you and then advising you which which text to read, which rituals to perform, and how to move along.

Sarah Buckmaster  12:34 
So can you tell us a little bit more about these stations of life, and really how that connects to this idea of how to be a good person within the teachings of Hinduism?

Pandita Indrani Rampersad  12:44 
Well, in terms of good, I use the word dharma. Dharma means that righteousness, it means that code of conduct as per your station in life, as per your situation. What's it about being good? I won't recommend killing anybody, shooting anybody as a normal course of living. However, if you were in the army, and you had to do that, that is, you know, acceptable. So being good has to do with - again - your station in life. And that's not black and white. One thing you understand about Hinduism, it's not polarities. We have great difficulty telling you polarities. Because, yes, we live in a world of polarities, black and white, good and bad, Dharma and Adharma - these are the two terms... we use Dharma, following that righteous path, and Adharma, that which does not promote the good of all. So Dharma is meant to upkeep the different institutions. Take the earth, why we say, rivers are sacred, and we protect the trees and we have all kinds of stories and mythologies around them... sacred waters and sacred this and sacred that...  because you see the connection with this sacredness of creation, and you being a part of that creation, the interconnectedness. Once you break that, that is a Adharma. That is being bad. That is not being good. I don't like using those two words [laughing]. But I mean, it's like you are threatening the very existence of the institution. You're threatening the very existence of Earth - when we engage in a lot of these pollution, you know, this kind of lifestyle, so that is being bad.

Sarah Buckmaster  14:49 
I appreciate when you say not wanting to use the terms good and bad. We definitely ask these questions and oversimplify them just to get to some of these deep rooted answers. But how would you advise someone if they really wanted to contribute positively to the world, what would you? Which way? Would you steer them? What advice would you give them?

Pandita Indrani Rampersad  15:07 
Don't hurt people in your thought, will and deed. Why? Because the other person is also a manifestation of the creator, of that divinity. So who are you hurting? You are actually... the Divinity is resident in that person, in all life, try not to hurt them. That is being bad. But remember I said, we have Dharma for special circumstances - as I explained to you, war was one of those. And the kind of foods you eat, we say, be nonviolent. That's why Hindus go the way of preferring a vegetarian lifestyle, because it's the least violent... still plucking a tree and so on is life, but it's the least violent of all.

Our texts, like the Mahabharata, for example, is full of these examples, where between two, you have to choose the right path - between two. And it's very, very difficult, because you have so many variables to weigh. And it forces you to think broadly and think of all conditions, and there's no easy way out. And you still realise that you still have the concept of karma. Never forget karma in being bad and good. We know we have a bank... we have a bank and all our good deeds go in there, and the adharma goes there too. So we know - our purpose is not to be reincarnated. Our purpose is not to come back in this continuous cycle of birth and death, pain and suffering. This is where pain and suffering lies - in this creation on Earth. So we don't want to come back in that. It is to transcend that. You know, the purpose is to reduce all the bad karma, negative karma, which will be bad, and build up all the good karma, which is good.

Sarah Buckmaster  17:14 
I'm curious about the concept of forgiveness within Hinduism, especially related or linked to karma. So if you've maybe collected bad karma, but then feel very sorry, can you be forgiven within Hinduism? So does forgiveness have an effect, or does it impact karma in some way?

Pandita Indrani Rampersad  17:34 
There is forgiveness. Say for example, Yama. We say Yama, the Lord of death, we've given death a name like Yama, the Lord of death... you can beg all you want, he is going to come right? He's gonna come. Similarly, your action bears fruit. If it's a bad thing, you are really sorry and you pray and you surrender to God, in that way, I think there is forgiveness, but you still have to deal with your karma. Otherwise, that God would be playing favourites. It would be like a shopkeeper saying "I'm going to give you so many dollars of prayers, and forgive me". So the karma concept, you still got to deal with it. But when you pray and your mind, your intellect, the whole, your being... you surrender...  you yourself will reap the bliss of that unity. The purpose is unity between my atman, and that what we call Paramatman - what you say God - we are one and the same, but we don't recognise it in this world.

Sarah Buckmaster  18:55 
You mentioned about thought, will and deed, and how does the balance between intention and action work within Hinduism?

Pandita Indrani Rampersad  19:02 
Beautiful! The Bhagavad Gita tells you that so wonderfully, and it says, if you do an action, the intent behind that action is what causes the fruit. You will get that fruit, the karma is dependent on your intent behind the action. So I kill you in war, my intent was not to kill you the human being. My intent was to defend my country, it was my duty, it was an honourable thing that I was doing. And I therefore accrue no negative karma. But if I just took my gun out and shot you out on the street, if out of envy or out of my personal desire and attachment and so on, that leads to  the fall of the Atman, the fall of the soul... while soul is not an a proper explanation of Atman. But Atman is me, that divinity that I am in this body

Sarah Buckmaster  20:09 
As a Hindu, is it a continuing learning process? ... it's a religion where it's adapting and growing and transforming quite a lot of the time.

Pandita Indrani Rampersad  20:17 
Well, it's it's adapting to suit the circumstances that you are in. And that's why the guru or the Acharya is so important. So we have books that guide us, we have teachings, we have teachers, and you have conscience. Conscience. And we equate that conscience with that creator, that giver of life, that God that is seated within our hearts. So that God is in here, you don't have to look outside for the god. It's in your heart. So you come inwards.

Sarah Buckmaster  20:59 
Have you ever personally as a Pandita, and also, as an activist, have you ever found that the Hindu ideas of what it means to be a good person and your personal ideas have ever been in conflict?

Pandita Indrani Rampersad  21:10 
For us, there was resistance to women taking up this leadership role. And it had to do with menstruation and ritual purity, and so on. Because when you, those who are into  performing lots of rites and rituals, it carries around a sense of purity. There's a lot you have to prepare yourself before you conduct those rituals. So that's where women were considered like not ritually pure enough to take up the role. And I was like, but you know, my, my intellect, my knowledge, I am equal to you and better than many, why would I not be accepted? So I fought that battle. And even in India, it is one that you see, but you see women priests as well. In fact, in {area in India}, there's a school that trains them. And lots of them have been out in in Europe and so on. So that change has been happening. And remember in India, too, they have different titles. So while I might be Pandita here, you may have a Swami there, you may have a Sadhu. And you got lots of women in that kind of role. I think it's in the ritual role, the ritual performance, that there's this, the more resistance. We have broken that in Trinidad. By in large, yes, we have broken that. But I'm not saying it's totally accepted by everybody. But there is growing acceptance.

Sarah Buckmaster  22:52 
Did any of the opposition you've ever come up against, have you ever had any personal doubts about whether what you're doing was the right thing or the good thing? Have you had any of those moments across your journey where you've had that self doubt at any point?

Pandita Indrani Rampersad  23:07 
No, not not in terms of whether it was right or wrong to do it, I never had a doubt, because I kind of sorted that out long before. But there was no doubt at all. No.

Sarah Buckmaster  23:20 
When I was carrying out my research for this interview, I came across the term Hinduphobia multiple times. And it's not a term that I'm that familiar with. I haven't seen it that often. And I'm just wondering if you could maybe talk a little bit to that. And you know, the research that you carry out around the Hindu religion, and I'm really curious as to how Hindus are treated around the world.

Pandita Indrani Rampersad  23:41 
Well, the word phobia when you use it, Hinduphobia, Islamophobia... It's a fear of somebody but nobody is afraid of the Hindu. We don't pick up guns to shoot, we don't kill you out of honour, that sort of thing. Nobody is afraid. There is hate. Hindudvesha. So recently, we've been using the word Dvesha - D-V-E-S-H-A. Hindudvesha. And we do have webinars around the Hindudvesha in America, in particular, and people have been studying it. And of course, we have got to make people understand that, first of all, did you know you're causing me pain and suffering? When you did, this when you said this. And a lot of times we don't understand that. And Hindus do not normally talk back. Be it from India to here, in its colonial history. So there's a kind of decolonization that's taking place now through education.

And we don't want to come back with anger. We, you know, we are not asking for reparation. We are saying let's forgive. Let's understand, accept, forgive and move on. You know, the Hindus are saying, that's the past but own it, own what you have done. The dvesha, the whole colonial thing of how India and Hindus were represented in the literature of colonisation is terrible. We have been painted as lazy. I mean, we are more aware of what they have said about African slavery, a lot of negative things were said about the Africans. And the same thing was done to the Indians. And so the Indian was seen as, as a childish person, even from the way you prayed, you know, they said, you were praying with a childish mind. When they saw the people reaching to connect between their level of, of the mundane with the cosmic. Their connection with the mundane to the cosmic, they couldn't understand that, that was not part of their world, of their paradigm. And, and so they looked at the Hindus as childish people. But, look at intelligence, look at what Hindus have given to the world, in terms of, you know, science and technology, and this whole philosophy and the cosmic relationship. Now the world is talking about reality. We've always said there are different realities,

Sarah Buckmaster  25:56 
The time goes so quickly, and I'd really like to ask if there's one thing for our listeners, one bit of advice you could give, if they wanted to go out and do something good in the world, you know, just the day-to-day thing, what would you think would be your key message to how to positively contribute to the world, and especially with that thread of how everything is interconnected, from that Hinduist perspective?

Pandita Indrani Rampersad  26:50 
You know what recently has been coming to my mind, when we look at the post-colonial kind of things that are happening with us around the world, and the racism, and the misunderstandings and so on, people are adjusting. And lately I've been thinking, let's look at the other person, don't see colour, don't see what you think is beauty or don't see age. Look for the Divinity in that person. Look, look for that piece of divinity that is that person - who also like you has hopes and dreams. And also we are here together and trying to make that flower... could we look at that and go past the identity that is not lasting?.. the body and so on, the colour and all that will go away, the language, the country, nationalilty...  that will go away. But what is lasting is that divinity that is really you. And I'm saying, I wish we could all - when we look at somebody - see that first. And perhaps last [laughing]. That's what I'm thinking and maybe we'll make the world a better place.

Sarah Buckmaster  28:03 
Pandita Indrani, thank you so much for joining me. Before we go, is there anything that we haven't covered that you'd like to talk about or any final words you'd like to share with us?

Pandita Indrani Rampersad  28:13 
We are not born sinners. We are divinity incarnated in this body. And the purpose of life is to manifest that divinity.

[Podcast Theme Music comes in, and then gently fades so it's quietly playing in background as Sarah begins talking...]

Sarah Buckmaster  28:26 
My hugest thanks go to Pandita Indrani for taking the time to talk with me, especially as she was in the midst of some intense research work. If after listening to that conversation, you'd like to learn more about the Pandita then you can find her on Facebook. And I'll also add links to a couple of articles and previous interviews with her in the show description.

Pandita Indrani Rampersad  28:47 
Thank you for having me, Sarah. It was a pleasure. Namaste.

Sarah Buckmaster  28:54 
If you've enjoyed this episode, and would like to hear more episodes and interviews exploring the question of what it means to be a good person in today's world, then please consider hitting the subscribe button. And if you have time and liked what you heard, then I would love you to leave a review and share with your friends. Thank you for listening. And if you have any questions or suggestions, please email me at any time. It's Sarah@howtobegood.co.uk and I would love to hear from you. Thank you.

[Podcast Theme Music, fades out]

Transcribed by https://otter.ai and Sarah Buckmaster