LM: In your book, How I Became a Hindu: My Discovery of Vedic Dharma, you detail your move from a Catholic upbringing to embracing Hinduism and Vedic knowledge. Can you tell us a bit more about how you discovered Hinduism and became interested in it?
VDF: It began with my study of Yoga and Vedanta in my late teens, including Yogananda’s, Autobiography of a Yogi, the works of Sri Aurobindo and Ramana Maharshi, as well as connecting with various teachers in these traditions both in the West and by mail to India. There was a strong India based Yoga mystical movement in the late nineteen sixties through the Beatles, Ravi Shankar, and many Yoga groups in the US that I was part of. The emphasis was on higher states of consciousness and I was particularly drawn to the Vedas and Upanishads. In that deeper study I became gradually aware of the greater tradition of Sanatana Dharma behind all such yogic teachings. I corresponded with Anandamayi Ma after 1976 and worked with MP Pandit after 1979, who were very helpful in my studies. It was the profundity of the teachings and the greatness of the modern gurus that most influenced me.
LM: What is Hinduism, its core tenets?
VDF: As Sanatana Dharma or the Universal Dharma, Hinduism’s main approach is to promote Self-realization and God-realization for all, based upon fulfilling ones personal and social dharmas in life, not mere escapism. To understand the core tenets of Hinduism it is best to study Vedanta through the Gita and Upanishads. These tenets can be summarized as the unity of Absolute reality, (Brahman), the unity of the cosmic ruling power (Ishvara), many paths to truth, and liberation as transcending the cycle of karma and rebirth through higher Self-awareness and communion with the Divine. Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world, the largest of the non-biblical traditions, the largest of the pagan and native traditions, the largest of the pluralistic traditions, the oldest continually practiced religion, and the tradition with the greatest number of spiritual, mystical, yogic and meditational practices to choose form. It provides many resources and options for those who wish to know the truth of Self, God and the Universe. It has many great modern gurus including several who have come to the West. Mahatma Gandhi defined Hinduism as the pursuit of the supreme truth, which is an old Vedic view.
LM: What lead you to form The American Institute of Vedic Studies?
VDF: First I started a Vedic Research Center for my translations and interpretations of Vedic texts, particularly the Rigveda. I expanded that into the American Institute of Vedic Studies to promote Ayurveda and Vedic astrology, as well. We find that Ayurveda and Vedic astrology can be helpful to everyone for leading a better life and a life more in harmony with the spiritual forces of the universe. Basically I wanted to share the Vedic knowledge in a language that people today could understand and through a center in the United States.
LM: At the Institute, you focus on several specific fields of research, can you tell us a bit more about each of these Vidyas? Especially curious to learn more about Vedic Shaivisim and its core message.
• Translations and interpretations of the Vedas, particularly the Rigveda, and an explication of the original Vedic Yoga – I have been translating the Rigveda for over thirty-five years and am just finishing a new book Vedic Yoga: the Path of the Rishis, based upon that. The Rigveda is likely the oldest and most profound of the world’s scriptures and the one least understood or properly translated.
• Vedic Yoga and teaching prime Vedic practices of mantra, pranayama and meditation – We hold that all aspects of Yoga can be found in the Rigveda through a deeper understanding of its mantric language.
• Projection of Vedic knowledge in a modern context for the coming millennium as Sanatana Dharma or the Eternal Tradition – We hold that Vedic and Hindu knowledge is universal and constitutes the core spiritual and yogic tradition for all humanity as rooted in the teachings of the Himalayan rishis. It is relevant for everyone and can be adopted everywhere.
• Vedic and Tantric mantras and their practical application, connecting to nature and Self-realization – We see Veda, Purana and Tantra as a single tradition, with Vedic and Tantric mantras being most powerful for bringing a higher awareness into our lives. This is explained more in my book Mantra Yoga and Primal Sound.
• Vedic Shaivism: the Integration of Shaivite and Shakti teachings or spiritual Tantra with the older Vedic teachings – We regard Shiva as the original deity of the Vedas. Shiva is the deity of primordial sound (pranava), Om, the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet and the Sanskrit language of which the Vedas are the expression. The four main deities of the Vedas as Agni (fire), Soma (moon), Surya (sun) and Indra (lightning) are the four aspects of Shiva, including his three eyes (sun, moon and fire) and his pranic or lightning form.
• Studies of Herbs, including those in the Himalayas -There are many powerful nervine and rejuvenative herbs in the Himalayas that need to be studied, preserved and used better, including special Soma plants. I mentioned these in my recent book, Soma in Yoga and Ayurveda: The Power of Rejuvenation and Immortality.
LM: I have read that you were named Vamadeva Shastri after the Vedic Rishi Vamadeva, under the auspices of the Hindu teacher Avadhuta Shastri. Can you tell us more about how that process came about, why that name was chosen?
VDF: I chose the name Vamadeva from my connection with the Vedic mantras of Vamadeva and his lineage. Vamadeva is the seer of the fourth book of the Rigveda and is prominent in the Upanishads as well. Vamadeva is also the name of the northern or Soma face of Lord Shiva.
LM: There seems to be so much ground to cover to learn more about the Vedas, do you have any recommendations on the path one should take to educate oneself on the Vedas?
VDF: Usually one starts with Om and the Gayatri Mantra to awaken the Vedic mantras and vision within oneself. Most of the translations of the Vedas in the west, done by academics who had little knowledge of the Vedic yoga, are not reliable. There are some works by Sri Aurobindo that are very helpful like his Secret of the Veda and Hymns to the Mystic Fire. Note my own Wisdom of the Ancient Seers. There are several modern movements in Hinduism like Arya Samaj, Gayatri and Svadhyaya that make the Vedas prominent. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi has also done that with his TM teachings.
LM: Can you share with our readers the value of Kriya Yoga, how one can incorporate it in one’s daily life?
VDF: Kriya Yoga in general refers to the practice of Yoga as tapas (self-discipline), svadhayaya (self-study) and Ishvara pranidhana (surrender to God and to the Cosmic sound current of Om), which are the three main methods of purifying the mind in order to ready it for samadhi. Kriya Yoga is also a term for a special pranayama practices taught by the disciples of Lahiri Mahashaya including Paramahansa Yogananda. These are very powerful practices for energizing the mind and promoting a higher evolution of consciousness in the human being, strengthening the nervous system.
LM: Ahimsa is considered to be one of the major teachings of Hinduism. Can you share with our readers some key examples of present day applications of ahimsa?
VDF: Ahimsa is often misunderstood. It does not simply mean non-violence as in the sense of outwardly refraining from overt acts of violence, which even a coward can do. Ahimsa indicates a proactive policy of seeking to reduce the amount of harm going on in the world. This requires reducing negative thoughts within ourselves and striving to bring more peace into the world. Sometimes it requires questioning the forces of oppression in the world or seeking to turn public opinion against them. Hinduism also has a Kshatriya or warrior tradition, such as we find in the Bhagavad Gita, that aimed to challenge negative forces in humanity, but starting with those within ourselves. A good example of a current Hindu teacher who upholds ahimsa and speaks out on social issues, as well as organizing great seva projects, is Swami Dayananda Sarasvati of Arsha Vidya Gurukulam.
LM: Can you talk to us about Karma vs Free Will? Do you believe that Karma is there because of free will?
VDF: Karma itself means action or what one has done. It is not something that comes to us from the outside. Our karmas in this life are the result of our own actions in previous lives that we did of our own accord. They are not something imposed upon us by someone else. Yet we must remember that desire is not free but is a compulsion coming from the outer world or other people, a force of ignorance that confuses us, not a representation of our true Self and its will-power. Desire puts us on a course of negative karmas that keep us under the control of the eternal world. Sadhana removes us from external karmas and helps us connect to our true Self or nature that is beyond all action, time, space and karma. While the true Self has free will, the ignorant ego is a puppet of forces it does not usually understand or perceive.
LM: Can you speak to us on the value of Bhakti. It has been said that Bhakti alone can keep our minds away from sin. Can you advise on how we can develop Bhakti, (ie, Naama Japa (repeating God’s name), Satsanga (keeping holy company), pooja (worship), satkathasravana (listening to Lord’s glory), etc)?
VDF: Bhakti or devotion is the simplest and easiest yogic path, but it should be a sadhana. Bhakti merely as an emotion will not take you far if you don’t turn it into a sadhana or regular practice. This requires all the factors of Bhakti that you mention. Mantra or Nama Japa is the easiest of these, and one can choose whatever of these Divine names or mantras that is most inspiring.
LM: As a Vaidya (Ayurvedic doctor and teacher), can you advise on how we can reduce stress in our daily lives? (ie, Specific mantras, meditations, calming foods)?
VDF: Stress mainly comes from our mental attitude of getting too involved in the external world and losing our inner peace. It also arises from not following the organic movement of life and living out of harmony with nature. Each individual requires a different treatment, so there is no en masse formula for wellness. Yet, generally we need to spend more time in nature, cook our own food from fresh organic sources, take in wholesome impressions from the world of nature, and devote ourselves to a sadhana. Chants for world peace will also bring peace to us.
LM: As a Hindu acharya (Hindu religious teacher), what are the basic tenets of Hinduism you can share with our readers that you see as universal truths that we can all benefit from adopting?
VDF: First Sanatana Dharma requires finding ones own personal dharma as well as fulfilling ones social dharma or duty to society. This should include following a sadhana or daily practice aimed at Self-realization. Hinduism emphasizes individual spiritual experience over outer beliefs and institutions. You must learn to perceive the Divine for yourself, within your own awareness, not simply repeat a set of tenets or beliefs as enough, which are only preliminary at best. The most universal truth is that the entire universe dwells within your own consciousness, and that you are one with all beings. We should learn to cultivate that universal unity consciousness, not merely as a belief but as realized as our own true nature.
LM: Will you be traveling/touring anytime soon…coming to NYC to share your knowledge with those interested in learning more?
VDF: This summer we are taking some time off. We will be doing some programs starting in September at the Sivananda Farm in Grass Valley, CA and at the Kerala Ayurveda Academy at Fremont CA and in October at the Chopra Center in San Diego Ca, followed by Turkey and India in November. Nothing on the east coast this year!
LM: Can you speak to us of Maya and offer any advice on how we can liberate ourselves from the cycle of death and rebirth? How we can work on dissolving our ego and reunite with the totality of being from which we sprang.
VDF: Maya is the illusion caused by seeing only the waves of the outer world of name and form as real while missing the inner ocean of pure consciousness behind it. Our true Self and awareness is inherently beyond all Maya. To reach that we should first learn to take the attitude of a witness or seer and begin, observing ourselves with clarity and detachment. You cannot dissolve your own ego, but the ego will fade as you move into your true Self or core awareness in the heart. You should search for your universal Self that is one with nature and give up your bodily or psychological self as but an outer appearance.
LM: In closing, if you had to give one piece of encouragement to people living in today’s busy world, what would you say?
VDF: Don’t live for the world only. Live for your inner being and for the cosmic being. Even our hectic modern media and computer world is but a small wave on the great ocean of consciousness. The highest Divine reality dwells within you and you can access it at any point that you are willing to look within with clarity and receptivity.
About Vedacharya David Frawley (Pandit Vamadeva Shastri):
Vedacharya David Frawley (Pandit Vamadeva Shastri) is a Vedic teacher and educator with numerous books in several Vedic and Yogic fields published worldwide over the past thirty years. He is the founder and director of the American Institute of Vedic Studies in Santa Fe, New Mexico (www.vedanet.com), which offers courses and publications on Ayurvedic medicine, Yoga and meditation, and Vedic astrology. He is also involved in important research into ancient Vedic texts and is a well known modern exponent of Hinduism and Sanatana Dharma. His work is highly respected in traditional circles in India, where he has received many awards, as well as influential in the west, where he is involved in many Vedic and Yogic schools, ashrams and associations.
For more information, please visit the American Institute of Vedic Studies website