‘Dharma is Observable, Experiential; Religion is a Belief System’ – Dr. David Frawley, Interview – Part 1

Dr. David Frawley (Pandit Vamadeva Shastri) D. Litt., is a western born teacher and guru in the Vedic tradition. In Bharat, Sh. Vamadeva is recognized as a Vedacharya (Vedic teacher), and includes in his unusual wide scope of studies Ayurveda, Yoga, Vedanta and Vedic astrology, as well as the ancient Vedic teachings going back to the oldest Rigveda. Sh. Vamadeva is a recipient of the prestigious Padma Bhushan award, one of the highest civilian awards granted by the government of Bharat, “for distinguished service of a higher order to the nation,” honoring his work and writings as a Vedic teacher, which he received in March 2015. He has a rare and prestigious D. Litt. (Doctor of Letters), the highest educational title possible in the field of Yoga and Vedic sciences, from SVYASA (Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana), the only deemed Yoga university recognized by the Government of Bharat. He is one of the most senior authorities on Vedic teachings, Astrology and Ayurveda today. We interview him on various topics related to Hindu society, and hope this interview also serves as an educative guide to those unaware about the basic issues related to Hindu society today. We thank Vamadeva ji for speaking to us.


Below is the interview transcript:

Namaskar sir, we are meeting you on Deepawali today. Thank you for giving us time, we are grateful to you for speaking to Hindupost. The first thing we want to speak to you about is, most of us celebrate Diwali for 2 things, return of bhagwan Rama to Ayodhya and worship of bhagwan Ganesha & maa Lakshmi. Sir, what are the additions to the festival from spiritual point of view, please tell us more about the importance of this festival –

Sh. Vamadeva : Ok, Deepawali of course has many sides and it starts with Dhanteras which is ‘Dhanvantri Jayanti’ and yesterday we celebrated the ‘First National Ayurveda Day’ based upon Dhanvantri’s birth or his origin which is in the Samudra Manthana, the rising out of churning of the cosmic ocean. That is an important consideration, also this is not just a question of outer wealth but inner wealth. Lakshmi also came out of that same ocean. So on Dhanteras, the emphasis is on Lakshmi but we should also remember Dhanvantri.

Sir…… most of us don’t know about bhagwan Dhanvantri, so every year Dhanteras is always celebrated for bhagwan Dhanvantri as well as maa Lakshmi. Is it true?

Sh. Vamadeva : Yes, Dhanvantri Jayanti is the same day, always. Trayodashi, its the lunar calendar. Every year the day and the date varies, just like Diwali is on this day. And today also, Kali can be worshiped on the 14th day, Chaturdashi is also worship of Kali. Of course, the main issue is the return of Ram to Ayodhya and then Vijayadashmi is seen as Ram’s victory over Ravana. You have to understand that Ram is the symbol of dharma. And Ram Rajya is the symbol and the story of Bharat, national dharma. After independence, not only Mahatma Gandhi, but many others were looking at re-establishment of Ram Rajya which was looking back to the whole Ramayana and the teachings, traditions that came out of that. But essentially, Deepawali is also on recognition of movement from darkness to light – Tamasoma Jyotirgamaya, I have written an article on that in Swarajya, on that line. There has always been this Vedic idea that we need to move across the ocean of darkness or ignorance to light , from non-being to being, from darkness to light, from death to immortality, the seeking of the higher light.

And the Agni, we light the fire outwardly, the diya but, Agni is symbolizing with the jeevatma, the flame – Chittagni within us and lighting that.  So Vedas begin with it, the energisation of Agni as that inner flame of awareness. So the outer symbolism of darkness to light reflects in inner symbolism of going beyond darkness of duality, maya and transcending the outer appearances, which is the essence of Vedas and the Vedanta. So that is the deeper meaning of Deepawali. And we also have the Yoga Vasistha which is also given to Ram, Aadhyatm Ramayana, we are discussing these inner teachings. So celebrations of higher meanings of light. Many traditions have celebrations of light, even Christmas is also little bit of celebration of light but recognizing the supreme light of consciousness, that is the real light we need to look for on Deepawali.

Thank you sir. Sir, we would like to know what attracted you to Hindu dharma… when you were growing up. Tell us more about this.

Sh. Vamadeva : Well, I have written a whole book on that few years ago. I came from a very different background. I came from a mid-western American family of 10 children. I had 7 younger sisters, and also a staunch Catholic family. Later on, we moved to bigger cities. I have had this mystic side to my mind, looking for something more. In my early youth, in my formative days,  I would study about the historical, philosophical, religious traditions, I learnt about the real history of the Catholic church, I actually left that at a very young age.   Because I felt that it didn’t represent… because I could see there are so many different religions, philosophies, how can you say that this is only true and all the others are false. When we were kids, we thought that Protestants were bad, much less non-Christians. In my study, I read western philosophy, the existentialists, the modern writers and all of that, but I found something lacking.

And then I just read Buddhism, Yoga, Vendanta, and that drew me in. At a young age, I came in contact with Yogananda’s teachings which gave us some practical techniques of mantra, pranayama, meditation and then seeing how they worked, experiencing that… And I always felt that this philosophy of karma, rebirth, moksha, self realization was most the most logical of all the philosophies. The western theology appears to me very superficial, the Marxist philosophy is also very superficial. At an intellectual level, I studied many things, Sri Aurobindo quite well. He explained things very well for us. Besides Yoga, I also developed interest in Vedanta, through study of Ramakrishna movement, works of Shankara, Ramana Maharishi’s works and Sanskrit. But through Aurobindo, I came in contact with Vedas because he was the only one who emphasized that. But he never allowed contact except for the teachers in America. In my mid twenties, first through correspondence, I came in contact with Anandamayi maa who encouraged me in my work. And then in my late twenties, I met NP Pandit, the secretary of Sri Aurobindo Ashram. By that time, I had written quite a bit. So I presented my works to him and said I am outside the academics. He said, ‘brilliant, you can see the things that academics can’t.’ So starting in my late twenties, we began publishing my works extensively in Bharat through the Aurobindo ashram publications.

Thereafter I went to Bharat, began studying Jyotish, Ayurveda etc. Then it kind of all unfolded without a particular plan and overtime, I was able to meet most of the great teachers in the different fields, not only in America but in Bharat too. And the first thing, I studied Vedas from the yogic angle. So I could reflect that there’s a deeper meaning to the texts. But in the process, I saw that the Vedic view to the world was not what was being said about it. There wasn’t this Aryan invasion, there was this vast image of the ocean, great rishis, in-depth culture. So I challenged that historic perspective. Then I also saw when I came to Bharat, how much Hindu Dharma has been distorted, the native tradition. So I began writing on those subjects. So my view began from Yoga, moved into Vedanta, then into Vedas and Vedic sciences. Then I began to understand the history and Sanatan Dharma, and the Vedic teaching behind it. I didn’t stop at one, I ended up trying to include the whole view of the Sanatan Dharma and the proper understanding of Hindu Dharma. Many people in the west think that Yoga & Vedanta are something apart from Hindu Dharma or a certain side of it, but the fact is they are the essence. So that’s the gist. I had many great teachers and they helped me quite a bit.

 – Thank you Sir for telling about this. Sir, most of us are told ‘Sarv Dharm Sambhav’, that all religions are equal. What do you think about this, is this the right perception of the phrase? What should be understood out of it..

Sh. Vamadeva: I have been criticizing it for three years, written chapters in books. There’s a lot of misinterpretation there. Dharma and religion are different. Dharma is the universal truth principle. Fire has the Dharma to burn. You won’t find a fire that doesn’t burn. Ahimsa, Satya, these are universal truth principles. But belief in a particular deity, belief in a virgin birth, these are not Dharmas. These are beliefs of a particular historical community. Now one can debate, one can argue that a particular belief may help you, may be it does, but it is not Dharma. So the western view of religion is a belief system. For example, in Christianity there are certain prime beliefs, when you follow it you accept those prime beliefs on the basis of faith. Whereas Dharma is something that is observable,  experiential, Dharmas are one, but we have to understand that religions are different. Religion is a phenomena in human life like so many others. We can’t say that all governments do the same, all laws are the same, all art is the same. When you go out to find husband or wife, you can’t say all men are the same or all women are the same and it doesn’t matter. You do a job, you can’t say all jobs are the same and it doesn’t matter. So you have to have Viveka or discrimination in life to have the proper food, proper medicine etc. And in spiritual life, Viveka is doubly important.

Now certainly we should respect freedom of religion and if people want to hold certain views, we shouldn’t interfere. But at the same time, we don’t have to say all religions are true or equal. And sometimes, it has been misinterpreted. Like Ramakrishna never regarded all religions as equal. He mainly practiced Hindu Dharma, Tantra.  He said that other religions may have something good in them also. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Catholic church is teaching the truth, or any Mullah or minister, or whatever evangelical is teaching the truth and it doesn’t matter, you see. The same teacher said you have to have a guru, these traditions don’t have a guru. That you have to have sadhana, these traditions don’t have it. There you are saved by belief, you are not saved by sadhana.

Then there was this confusion on what we would say ‘freedom of religion’ with all religions being the same. We should be free to practice the religion we wish but that doesn’t make them all equal. You should be free to vote for the candidate of your choice but that doesn’t make them all same. ‘Sarv Dharm Sambhav’ came from the texts, it talks about unity of Dharmas. In Mahabharat it is said, the rivers that flow into the Eastern ocean don’t flow into the Western ocean. And you have to understand that in Geeta, we talk about shraddha, or faith, it doesn’t say all faith is the same. In Geeta faith is described as satvik, rajsik and tamsik. So, that has to be borne in mind. So spirituality, religion, is a very diverse field, there are many options, there are many good paths but there are also many bad paths. In life we discuss that we have choice of paths, but that doesn’t mean all paths will take you to the right place. There are many roads you can take, but not all are going to take you to Delhi or wherever you want to go. You have to follow the right path and each individual is different. What may be the right path for one person may not be the right path for another.

So, the traditions of Bharat are pluralistic, they recognize there are many paths to truth in the broader sense. The western religious traditions are exclusivistic, they teach that there is only one God and they tend to say that theirs is the only legitimate path. So we cannot equate those two things. And the second things is that, in the traditions coming out of Bharat, spirituality is not so much of a faith but a way of knowledge.  It is a science. Scientists can say all scientific theories are equal, they are all correct. That’s the end of science. So we have a way of knowledge. And in a way of knowledge, you should have free inquiry. There has to be a debate about ideas, for example, if all religions are equal, the Hindu & Buddhist religions teach karma & rebirth, the western religions teach we have only one life. Does that mean the law of karma doesn’t matter? So you have to understand that.

And Sir, you have the American experience also. We would like to know how is the term ‘Secularism’ used in America. We know how it is used here, misused rather. What is the essential difference how it is applied there and here..

Sh. Vamadeva: First of all, ‘Secularism’ through out the west, not just secularism in America…Secularism means at the political and state level, there is no regard for religion. There is a neutrality, and there is a freedom of religion in America. In Bharat, secularism means not only giving freedom of religion but giving almost equal prominence to all religions, or equal validity to all religions. Or even worse, in Bharat, secularism means favoring minority religions and taxing majority religion. In fact, in America, the majority follow Christian religion, the government can’t take their money. And if the government did, and give a benefit to minority religion, everybody will open a minority religion in their basement in order to avoid taxes, to save that money. So Bharat is the only country where secularism is used to take the resources and the money from the majority religion. Its also the only country where majority religion is subject to legal regulation and minority religions are not. For example, in America, the courts cannot judge any religious festival. They have no right to judge that. They can make regulations related to crime and safety… but there is no judgement on a particular celebration or you can’t say for a particular event, these things are not allowed.

Now that being said, in America, there’s still a favoritism for Christianity, particularly related to foreign policy. American government very staunchly supports American evangelical and religious groups in their overseas activity, particularly in Bharat. The Government of Bharat does not support Hindu activities overseas. Here, we tend to undermine majority. That is the general situation. I’ll give you an example – some years ago, a group we know, actually its the Italian Hindu Union, was striving to get Hindu marriage recognized in Italy. And I would like to tell you that they have now succeeded without any support from Bharat’s government. They arranged a meeting of different ambassadors of different countries in Rome, for making Hindu marriage legal. Ambassadors from so many governments came, but the ambassador from Bharat didn’t come! He said ‘I cannot come because Bharat is a secular country!’ So these things have gone on.

I think what happened in Bharat, you see for Independence movement, you have to create national unity. That’s fine, but that doesn’t mean that debate about religions must come to an end. Because Bharat is the main country in the world today where Christian missionary activity is going on. China does not allow it, Islamic countries do not allow it, Bharat is the main place where not only this activity is allowed, its often tolerated, and even the money they bring in..is awfully more. By criticizing secularism, we are not asking that Bharat has to become legally pro-Hindu, but there has to be an equality of law. For example… Christians criticize Bharat as being anti-Christian. They don’t criticize other Islamic countries where they are not allowed. So they should at least honor Bharat which is one of the few countries which is actually allowing them. But they need to be scrutinized because there are various vested interests that come into play. For example, Russia also is a country that doesn’t allow missionaries.

– But sadly Sir, many Hindus, even the educated middle class, lacks the knowledge that there is legal discrimination going on against Hindus in Bharat. For example, we can’t control our own religious institutions, in the field of education also, we have this new law called RTE, under which only the Hindu run schools have to face… 

Sh. Vamadeva: I know.. majority run schools, majority means Hindus but also anybody who is not a minority religion. So there are these problems, they need to be addressed. And also, as I have been writing relative to the west, people in the west don’t know that. See what happens is that, leftist media in Bharat has an alliance with media in the west. Media in the west doesn’t know what they are saying is not necessarily correct. So if they say that Hindus are an oppressive majority, they don’t know about these temple issues and things like that. So there has been a lack of communication and also the Bharat’s government has been at fault. You see, Bharat’s government has not tried to correct these issues. In fact, the Bharatiya government has often had anti-Hindu interests. So they have actually promoted anti-Hindu editorials in the foreign media in order to denigrate Hindus. 

I’ll give you an example, this was some years ago, at the time of Ram janmabhoomi movement, sometime after that. The Amarnath issue had come up, there were a couple of insinuations in New York Times. The New York Times described the Amarnath pilgrimage as Hindus going there to worship the ‘sex organs of Shiva, the God of destruction.’ These were the words they used.  And when they talked about the destruction of Babri masjid, the New York Times described it as the oldest mosque in Bharat. See things are distorted. But there were some vested interests that kept that act together. And unfortunately, there was an academic alliance too. For example, in the west today, if you go to the humanities departments, there are more communists than republicans even though Communism is not allowed, its an illegal political group. So, there are these distortions that have come in. And that’s where groups like us..we have been challenging, that’s where Hindu Post has also been very necessarily challenging, bringing out the truth. It is not the question of creating prejudice or encouraging distortion, but showing what is actually happening on the ground, and it is very different. Bharat is also perceived as a soft state, so then you bring in outside influences to disrupt and to control.

The other interesting thing in the west is that you now have a number of Hindu communities. The Hindu community in America is the most educated and affluent of all the minority communities except the Jews.  The average Hindu makes twice as much as an American Christian or American Muslim makes..They have achieved success in a number of fields and they have temples everywhere, in major cities. So the view of Hindus in America is much more positive. Even a lot of Christians work for organizations run by Hindus, because Hindus are in cities like Houston, Dallas, Atlanta … with Christian evangelical population. Then we have the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) which is the only real Hindu lobbyist group at the government level anywhere in the world.  The other problem is that Hindus do not fund these types of political & intellectual media groups for various reasons. HAF found that they can carry the Hindu view across, people are open to it, but it has to be presented and it has to be defended.

For example – we were discussing with some native American groups in America… the discourse on the native Americans, when we were children, was that they were savages killing the white settlers. Now, the fact that they were victims of genocide has come out to a very great extent. So we were talking to them and they said, ‘Look, we had to work very hard for this, no one is going to do this for you. So the change of narrative on Hindu Dharma requires as much money, as much effort, as much time as what we have done’. So Hindus haven’t always done that. Of course, now there are new groups in the west, they are making efforts. And then, there are Hindu based teachings like Ayurveda, Yoga that are popular. And even studies have shown that over a quarter of population of America believes in rebirth…this is a long term study. So the openness to Hindu based ideas is there. Sometimes people are still influenced by the old missionary propaganda which certain groups are still upholding. So they may say they are very much into Yoga and follow Vedanta, even have a Sanskrit name but ‘I am not Hindu’. They say they don’t want to be identified with certain negative things that they have been told.


The Part 2 of this interview with Dr. David Frawley shall be published soon. We thank Dr. Frawley for speaking to us.


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