Dr. Uma Mysorekar, a successful Gynecologist & Oncologist since 1970, has been associated with the Hindu Temple Society of North America, a pioneer Hindu religious institution in this continent, since 1970, as a Trustee of the Society from 1989 and as the President of the Society since 1994. She spends all the 7 days of the week in the service of Lord Ganesa. Under her able leadership, the Temple has been transformed into a premier center of religious worship and the Society into a prominent cultural and social organization. [Ed. Note: A list of her participations and accomplishments would be too lengthy for this space, but take our word for it, she is a dynamo.]
I met Dr. Uma Mysorekar at the offices of the Hindu Temple Society in Flushing on a hot, humid NYC day.
Ivan Nahem:, Yoga Teacher Magazine: So Doctor Mysorekar I found you through reading an article about the Take Back Yoga movement in the New York Times. But then when I read more about your work it seemed like you could be a resource for people to learn more about Hinduism, which is after all the birth country of yoga. And then after I’d already decided to contact you I saw you were on the Stephen Colbert show ‒ icing on the cake! You were so charming on that show, fantastic, we’ll talk more about that toward the end. My first question is a bit of a joke…. Do you have telephones in India?
Dr. Uma Mysorekar: Yes we do! You know when I came to this country in January 1970, I had my first year residency in South Carolina, and fortunately I had a roommate who was a Christian, a very wonderful person, compassionate, always wanting to know about our systems. She used to take me to places, since I was alone and I was new to the area. They used to ask me such questions: do you have telephones, do you have houses, where do you live?! In one presentation I said we live in trees and the audience burst out laughing!
Nahem: I saw that story, about the telephone question, in one of the articles about you. But time goes by and we learn more about each other, people we consider exotic. So you’ve been key in building the mHindu Temple here, can you tell us the story of the establishment of the Temple?
Dr. Mysorekar: In the Sixties there was an influx of immigrants, mostly coming on J visas. President Kennedy introduced the J visa, and New York was the port of arrival. From day one Flushing was a multi-ethnic community and attracted many Indians. I was young to the field at that time and knew some people who started looking for a place to build a temple, because by then the Indians who had come here had somewhat stabilized themselves financially and workwise yet they knew they were missing something, and that was spirituality. And Hindus celebrate festivals on a large scale. In India we celebrate in homes, families get together, mothers and grandmothers cook wonderful food and everybody enjoys it. But in this country it is just not possible. So we thought, let’s all get together and build a temple because this is the best place for people to congregate. So that’s how the seed was sown. Actually this place was then a Russian Orthodox Church, it was a small church in rundown condition and they wanted to sell it off because they didn’t want to put money into renovating it, so they wanted to move somewhere else. And at that time it was sold for fifty thousand dollars, believe it or not, I can’t even imagine! [Laughter.]
Nahem: You can’t get a tiny apartment in Manhattan for that much.
Dr. Mysorekar: In Manhattan?! Here! Impossible, impossible, I tell you. When the Temple was purchased most of the people were not very affluent, they had just started their lives here, it was not like they could give hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations, you know, but whatever they could, they did. And there was the State Bank of India right here and normally banks don’t give loans to religious institutions, but it is an Indian bank and because this was the first temple going to be built, they eased up their rules and they gave a loan for $375,000. So construction began around ’72 and it got finished in ’76, and in ’77 it was opened up for consecration. The Society itself was incorporated January 26, 1970, India’s Republic Day, and the consecration took place on July 4, 1977, the American Independence Day.
But once that was done there was a lot of pessimism, even among Hindus: why build a temple, no one’s going to come, people come to America to enjoy life so who is going to come to temple? There were many pessimists ‒ also many optimists. Believe it or not, within less than a decade we began to feel this place was too small, which prompted some beautifications and expansions. Expansion again started in about 2000 and was completed just three years ago, doubling the space. In Flushing land is gold, so we always needed to purchase homes and raze them, so it was double the cost but that was all we could do. I think we’ve reached a maximum, there’s not much more we can do, but if we do it will be my successors, I really will not be able to do it!
Nahem: That would be too much needless trouble for you at this point, right?
Dr. Mysorekar: Not trouble, there’s no space!... I think the Temple has become a focus for community to get together and has also served as a place where we reach out to other communities. The Temple reaches just about every single religious community around the area, we have programs together with Chinese, Koreans, of course Buddhists, and we’re deeply involved in much interfaith work, including the peace-building process. We have taken a firm stand that the Temple should not be just a place of worship, because worship includes love for humanity and betterment of humanity and the peace that should be there ‒ inner peace and outer peace.
Nahem: That’s lovely. So what is your personal history? You’re originally from Bangalore…
Dr. Mysorekar: I’m originally from Bangalore but most of my education was in Bombay. My medical education was in Bombay. Like everybody else I came here to get some experience but thinking of course I will go back! People come with that attitude: I’ll spend three or four years here and go back. But now you come and start getting involved, you accomplish your residency, then you want to practice for a few years, see how the practice is, you get involved in something else and before you realize it you’re wondering do you retire here or there!
Nahem: Time just passes! Do you go back very often?
Dr. Mysorekar: Yes, at least once a year.
Nahem: You have family there.
Dr. Mysorekar: Yes, family there. And also on the west coast, so they visit and I see them there too. Also for me Temple is my family.
Nahem: Of course. So you’ve been involved in many service projects. What projects are you most proud of and happy about?
Dr. Mysorekar: Two main things. One is the Temple itself. The human body is a temple. If that’s true then expanding the temple we have expanded ourselves to everybody else. The Divinity is within you, and therefore when you have served people, you have served the Lord. And thousands and thousands of people come to a temple or any place of worship for two reasons: they want to unload their burden to the Lord and get some answers, or to express their joy for what they have accomplished. We have to be thankful to the Lord both ways.
We strongly believe that when you sit in front of your Lord, when you’re able to sit and close your eyes and think of the Lord only, you can literally speak to the Lord, and when you do that after some time some answers come back to you, it just flashes in your head. Often mistakenly we think it’s because we’re bright, but it’s not.
Nahem: Divine inspiration, you might say?
Dr. Mysorekar: Yes. That kind of a service is very low-key but for people to come and build up their spirituality, that is the best and foremost thing. For me religion is not just rituals. There are three things. One is the place itself because you feel a lot of vibrations in the place, because of the chanting, the Vedas and so forth. The second is the rituals. Of course that’s important. But then the third, and this is very, very important, is how do we communicate with each other, you know? This part is the most important in how we spread peace in the different communities. Rituals will vary from your faith to my faith. But the moral values, the core values, will not differ. You may speak in a different language but at the same time, they’re all the same. If we sit in a conference and discuss core values, everybody’s in agreement. But the disagreement comes when it comes to rituals. But if we can establish to our own community what rituals are important, because it is important to gain what they have come for, and then use this third part to be able to spread that message of spirituality and peace among others, I think that is an accomplishment.
Nahem: The fellowship. Without which your community becomes too insulated. Contributing to that is an excellent accomplishment.
Dr. Mysorekar: Yes.
Nahem: So because of the wide range of traditions and ideas covered by the term Hinduism, arriving at a comprehensive definition is difficult. Hinduism has been defined as a religion, a religious tradition, and a set of religious beliefs. What would you like non-Hindus, and particularly our audience of yoga enthusiasts and teachers, to know about Hinduism?
Dr. Mysorekar: In my view Hinduism is a religion of mankind, sanatana dharma, the eternal religion. And the religious teachings are general, what this means is not even specified to Hindus. Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita says, “Come to me in any form, I will take you” ‒ and he’s offering this to anybody. You don’t look at Him just as a Hindu God. It is the Divinity that says, “Come to me in any form,” and this is essential to the basic sanatana dharma, the basic teaching of Hinduism. Now it does get dissected out into so many different parts, and that’s confusing. People will say it is polytheistic, but it doesn’t matter. It is monotheistic in that there is one Supreme Brahman, which is the Ultimate Reality. All other gods – and when you go to the temple you will see so many ‒ these are the attributes of the superior Brahman.
So if I’m sitting across from you and I feel I like you and I can relate with you, then I’ll start putting out my joys and my distress and that kind of thing, and that can develop that chemistry, that balance. It’s the same thing if you are sitting in front of the Lord, you develop that close personal relationship. That is what we call Ishta devata. In other words if I sit in front of Ganesha, that is my Ishta devata but that does not mean I disrespect the other deities. For me, He gives me my answers.
Any religion will have symbols; it is not just the Hindu religion. Because symbols are important to human beings, the mind needs to focus. For example if you go back to ancient history, they used to have these crystals, I’m sure you’ve read, the Egyptians felt these crystals came from outer space, and holding the crystal itself brought an enormous change in the human being. What did it do? It emitted energy, nothing but energy. You have a cross. What is a cross? Not just a symbol, it is much more than a symbol. You can just draw a cross and throw it away, but you don’t because you adore it, you worship it and it is very close to your heart. Therefore any symbol that has a spiritual significance brings you a sense of satisfaction, a sense of well-being.
In India people go to rishis, local seers. When people have a problem they go talk to them. And you wear this tie, this thread, and you go. And believe it or not people will be standing in line for it. And the reason for it is, that thread has now been injected with spirituality and energy. And so wearing that thread brings the relief this individual is looking for. So everything, every bit in life, has a meaning, if only we'd look into it.
Nahem: With the insight that comes from inspiration.
Dr. Mysorekar: And Hinduism believes that every single being is divine, not just human beings. Every animal, every single plant, everything is divine. According to mythology people used to go to the seashore and take some sand and build the gods, they would build Ganesha or Shiva out of sand, and they worshipped the god, and that was God Himself. And the mythological stories say, from that worship, God has appeared in front of them. So we chose that there is divinity in every single aspect. Every single human being, no matter who we are. That is the first factor. Secondly there is the sanatana dharma, the eternal religion, and then thirdly we do have monotheism and polytheism, and the interplay between them. These are the fundamental factors.
Nahem: Now one of the ways this can be confusing for outsiders, which you’re touching on here, is that there are sects, for example those who mostly worship Shiva, those who worship Vishnu, Vaishnavism and Shaivism. How does that play here, do people from different sects come to the Temple?
Dr. Mysorekar: Yes, we do, we have almost all the deities. This was all created, going back thousands of years ago, the extremists felt that one god was superior to the other god, and truthfully, in the original Puranas and mythologies, these gods don’t even appear. It is all man-made, it is entirely man-made. And unfortunately it had such an influence on people that it has created a problem.
But we have made a very strict rule here: all the deities are the same. That’s why I use the phrase Ishta devata, because if you choose only to worship Vishnu, there is no problem. Although our main deity here is Ganesha, this week we start a nine day celebration of Lord Vishnu. Our biggest festival here is for Ganesha, nine days at the end of August. So every deity is as important as the other ones. And certainly the devotees must feel that satisfaction that if, say, my Ishta devata is Lord Vishnu, when I come here to pray I get what I want.
Nahem: So you have yoga classes here at the Temple. What sort of yoga is taught?
Dr. Mysorekar: We used to have a swamiji. You’ve heard of Swami Bua? He was one hundred and twenty years when he died [Ed. Note: Find interesting material on the swami here: http://grimmly2007.blogspot.com/2014/04/swami-bua-contemporary-of.html]. He was very well-known and he traveled all over. Finally he became sick and went back to India where he passed away. He started the yoga classes here. He used to have a yoga school in Manhattan. Then he started this class every Sunday morning, then he trained some of the people, his disciples, particularly one person, Sanjay, and after his passing it is these disciples who carried on. Now Sanjay conducts the classes. Some of them are really good at the asanas; he does chanting and meditation also, and at least a half hour of pranayama. On August 3rd we’ll have Swamini, Krupa Shivarthy (Sn. Shivakrupa), she’s an expert in pranayama and ajapa japa [Ed. Note: constant mantra awareness]. She’ll conduct a workshop for three hours. [Ed. Note: This will happen Sunday, August 3, 8-11 AM, Saraswati Hall]. She’s a very well-known person and she’s going to be here.
Nahem,: I want to come to that!
Mysorekar: Sure, sure!
Nahem: So I saw a passage in a New York Times article that declared you are friendly to the Take Back Yoga movement. What are your feelings about that?
Dr. Mysorekar: See, I personally feel, yoga belongs to humanity! The controversy then was about the origin of yoga. It was not that we take ownership of yoga, there is no way anybody can take ownership of yoga. Yoga is a divine process, which every human being has a right to follow, to do what they want with. But they should do it the right way so they have the best benefit. I have seen myself some of these yoga centers, they make it very attractive, they put something on the wall and say, keep watching it, and you do some meditation. I don’t want to sound pessimistic but some of this is just a money-making process, and the real spiritual meaning of yoga is lost. And my thing was, when the reporter asked me, how did yoga originate, well what is yoga really: yoga came from the word yuj, right, which means to join. To join what? The Atman with the Paramatman. It means joining the individual divinity with the Paramatman, which is super-divine.
Lord Krishna in Bhagavad Gita asks, how can you do this? He describes four methods of yoga, and then in order to build all this you need that physical posture. We know very well that by performing these asanas you improve your blood supply tremendously. By doing meditation your self-control becomes enormous. You’re able to accomplish what you want. Swami Bua, I witnessed myself, he could stop his heartbeat. In fact he went to a place where he was being examined, and he just stopped, everybody thought he was gone, but he said, “No, I’m right here,” and he came right back! You see, this has been documented in many, many places, actually.
Yoga has a tremendous meaning. The ancient seers and sages used to do this yoga. It was their primary method of worship, yoga itself.
NAHEM: I think one think that concerned me about this movement is the name, actually. Because it sounds aggressive. However I read statements by the Hindu American Foundation about their Take Back campaign which in fact sounded more conciliatory, for example: “Hinduism, as a non-proselytizing religion, never compels practitioners of yoga to profess allegiance to the faith or convert. Yoga is a means of spiritual attainment for any and all seekers.” So I don’t think it’s about saying you Westerners took away our prize possession so give it back, but more about being acknowledged for the achievements that practicing Hindus have given the world.
Dr. Mysorekar: Absolutely.
NAHEM: I also have reservations about some forms that yoga has taken as it evolves. Some people do want to entirely dissociate yoga from any kind of spirituality, and that is a problem ‒
Dr. Mysorekar: That is a problem.
NAHEM: But I wouldn’t want to close them down or say they shouldn’t practice at all.
Dr. Mysorekar: That’s right. I mean, we are not here to tell them right or wrong. But our full understanding is that unless there are some forms of spirituality involved in yoga the real benefit of yoga is not achieved. You have to be fair and justified to those whom you teach, otherwise why wouldn’t students just go to a gym and do exercise?
Nahem: A yoga class should be more than simply a workout to lose calories. People want to be calmed. Whatever Higher Power they want to bring in, that can always be part of it.
Dr. Mysorekar: There is a definite difference between a gym and a place for yoga. A yoga place has to give what it is meant for, in whatever way. And the teacher must be fully cognizant of what the spirituality is, in order to be able to communicate. You know, first you have to tune yourself into that when you start the yoga. The first thing we do is chanting so that people get into that mood. And the place doesn’t have to be dark, nothing of that sort, but your mind should be bright, forget the body outside! The mind should be bright and wide, that is the most important thing. And I think that can be accomplished.
We stand for the fact that yoga is for humanity. I never said for Hindus or non-Hindus. And if that can be propagated and done properly, I think yoga can revolutionize. Millions of people can benefit.
NAHEM: Definitely the acknowledgement should be there, from the categories of yoga in the Bhagavad Gita, to the Sanskrit names identifying the asana. And of course there is darkness too, there are people just in it for the profit, but what can you do?
Dr. Mysorekar: Yes, you can’t do anything about this! [Laughter.] In every field you find people taking advantage. But that’s the way the world is.
NAHEM: What disturbs me the most is how people use the excuse of religion to kill each other. And that is just so wrongheaded.
Dr. Mysorekar: Religion is supposed to stop the violence, but unfortunately it is used to create violence.
NAHEM: So how was your experience with Stephen Colbert, was it fun? [http://thecolbertreport.cc.com/videos/vtx5qc/barack-obama-s-church-search---dr--uma-mysorekar]
Dr. Mysorekar: Ha! Do you know I don’t watch television, so I wasn’t familiar with him at all. They just called me. So when I went there, this lady comes to me and she says, listen he’s going to come talk to you before the show, you know. This was the time when there was a controversy about Obama joining a church. And he comes to me and says, “I’m going to abuse you on the show, you should know how to disabuse yourself.” I said, “Look here, Mr. Colbert, I’ll try!”
NAHEM: And you did a fine job!
Dr. Mysorekar: Oh thank you!
NAHEM: You went with the joke. You see some guests on that show, they just don’t get it. Some people don’t know how to react when he abuses them, he’s playing a part, but you were great.
Dr. Mysorekar: It was a very short segment but it carried a tremendous message, and it came automatically. I didn’t know what he was going to ask. There’s no way you can guess with these kinds of things. They were asking, why can’t Obama be a Hindu?!
NAHEM: And they showed him in a Hindu outift.
Dr. Mysorekar: Yes! That was fun!
NAHEM: So your Vishnu festival is starting now, and the Ganesha festival is at the end of August. Is that festival only in the Temple or the street also?
Dr. Mysorekar: In the street on the last day. A silver chariot will go all the way up to Main Street and then come back.
NAHEM: Well I hope to come back to see this.
Dr. Mysorekar: Please, please you are most welcome, any time.