Dena Merriam, an Indophile known for her work in interfaith movement, believes that Hinduism is the only major religion that has maintained the understanding of the feminine aspects of the Divine consciousness – the Mother Goddess.In an exclusive interview with Organiser’s representative Pradeep Krishnan, this devotee of Paramahansa Yogananda and a keen student of Vedic tradition emphasises that Hinduism shows the way to discover the truth and India has suffered a great deal from the imposition of Western and other foreign belief systems
Dena Merriam is the Founder and Convener of the Global Peace Initiative of Women (GPIW), an international organisation bringing spiritual wealth to address critical global challenges, such as conflict, social justice, and ecological scarring of the earth. Over the years, she has worked to bring greater gender balance and poise between the Abrahamic and Dharma-based religious traditions for a more inclusive interfaith movement.
Merriam served as Vice Chair of the Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, held at the United Nation in New York in 2000. She subsequently convened a meeting of religious and spiritual women leaders in Geneva, and from that gathering founded the GPIW in 2002. In 2008, she started Contemplative Alliance, which later became a program of GPIW, to explore how meditation and contemplative practices are reshaping the spiritual landscape of our societies. For over 40 years, Dena Merriam has been a devotee of Paramahansa Yogananda and a keen student of Vedic tradition. Ms. Merriam received her Master’s Degree from Columbia University in Sacred Literature, and she has since served on the boards of such prestigious organisations such as the Harvard Center for the Study of World Religions; the Interfaith Center of New York; The International Center for Religion and Diplomacy; the Manitou Foundation; the All India Movement for Seva (AIM for Seva); and the Gross National Happiness Center in Bhutan. She was an advisor to the board of Dharma Drum Mountain Buddhist Association, and in 2014 she received the Niwano Peace Prize for her interfaith peace efforts. She is the author of “My Journey Through Time: A Spiritual Memoir of Life, Death and Rebirth”.
In 2019 she published “The Untold Story of Sita: An Empowering Tale for Our Time.” The book replaces the traditional narrative of Sita’s life as told in the Ramayana with Sita as she truly is – an incarnation of the great Devi Narayani. This is a story of a woman’s wisdom, courage and strength, her love for the manifest and unmanifest worlds, and her selfless sacrifices for the welfare of all. Excerpts:
Please tell us about your place of birth, parents, family and education.
I was born in New York City into a secular Jewish family that identified culturally and ethnically as Jewish but had no strong religious inclination. They found their spirituality through art. My father was a successful businessman, a painter and sculptor and later became a prominent photographer of sculpture. So, I grew up in the art world. My parents were collectors of 20th Century American and European sculpture and we frequently visited art galleries and museums. Since early childhood, I had a strong spiritual interest and became a rather quiet and withdrawn child, often retreating to books for companionship. Once in college I was able to pursue my spiritual interests.
I understand that you were born to Jewish parents. How did you get attracted towards Hinduism? What was the turning point in your life?
The turning point in my life was while in college listening to a speech by Baba Ram Das, who had just returned from India and was giving talks in Cambridge, where I was studying. I loved stories of his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, and bought his book ‘Be Here Now’. Soon after a college friend handed me ‘The Autobiography of a Yogi’, I immediately recognised Yogananda as my guru.
I began to meditate and study Hindu texts. For many years I had always kept a copy of the Bhagavad Gita with me and read it again and again. Later I studied the Upanishads, and other texts. As I had rejected the Abrahamic view of the Divine as a judging and punishing father, was so drawn to Yogananda’s description of a loving mother aspect of Divinity. I realised that this was what I had been seeking for so long. Since I was also very close to many Karoli Baba devotees, I also recognised that I had a deep love to Shri Ram and Mata Sita and that I was also part of that spiritual family.
I myself recall two lives in India during the Islamic occupation and so have first-hand knowledge of the forced conversions and destruction of tens of thousands of temples. Now it is the Christians, of course not all, but some of the aggressive sects, wanting to convert the world
Tell us about your association and experiences with Shri Paramahamsa Yogananda ji.
For several years, I longed for Yogananda’s physical presence and once he came to me in a dream and initiated me into the lineage of Kriya Yoga. I read everything about him and his close disciples, listened to their talks, went to their classes, and took very seriously my meditation practice. Every now and then he would come in a dream and transmit to me a very uplifting experience. I also felt deep love and reverence for Mahavatar Babaji and also has some experience of him. It was many years before I understood that the guru is within and there is no separation. Even when Yogananda was in the body, he would never tell the devotees what to do. Instead he would always direct them to go meditation and find the answers within. So, I practiced this and learned that the key to everything is found in meditation.
What is unique about Hinduism? Why is it different from other religions, particularly Christianity and Islam?
There are so many factors that are unique to Hinduism. Most important, it doesn’t preach an absolute doctrine. Rather, it shows the way to discover the truth inside: one has to do the work oneself. Christianity says if you take baptism you are saved, and everyone else, well…. they are not. From an early age, I didn’t understand how people can just accept what a religious official or doctrine says without knowing for themselves, without first-hand experience. Hinduism offers the science of meditation, proven methods to help one awaken to the true nature of all things. The teachings of Hinduism derive from the Satya Yuga, from the rishis, a time when there was greater spiritual perception and attunement with the cosmic forces, we call the deities. The Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – come from a period in time when there was a decline in spiritual knowledge and so perhaps this is why they needed doctrine instead of the scientific methods for deeper spiritual perception. In addition, Hinduism is the only major religion that has maintained the understanding of the feminine aspects of the Divine consciousness – the Mother Goddess. The suppression of this knowledge in later religions is a cause for much suffering in the world.
Yogananda awakened in me this love and reverence for the Devi.
What were the reasons for you to embrace Hindu way of life or becoming a Hindu?
There were so many things about Hinduism that were natural for me. From early childhood my inclination was to be a vegetarian. My mother wouldn’t allow it but as soon as I went to college, I became a vegetarian and am so grateful for not having to eat any meat, poultry or fish. I also feel deep affinity with the Devas and Devis – all of them. My lineage is from Narayana and Narayani, but I also love Mahadev and Mata Parvati, and have recently come into a deep relationship with Saraswati Devi. To me, this is the most precious thing about Hinduism. I cannot imagine living without the Deities and it makes me sad that so many young Hindus today do not feel the living presence, the living reality of the Deities. Let me stress that they are very present today. If we don’t perceive them it is because we are not making the effort.
In your professional life, you began as a cultural journalist, covering art and spirituality and then moved into women’s issues. Later, you began counseling spiritual organisations. Please share your experiences?
Since I was young, I have been writing. I married early while in college to a devotee of Yogananda, and had two children. At 32 when I got divorced, to make a living, I joined my father’s business and took over the magazine division as the editor of a sculpture magazine and wrote the texts for some of his art books. As my father was a good friend of Kofi Annan, who in the 1990s became the Secretary General of the United Nations, with his encouragement, I became Vice Chair of the Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, held at the UN in NY in 2000. There I met many spiritual teachers and became close to especially Swami Dayananda Saraswati, Swami Veda Bharti, DadiJanki and some of the Buddhist teachers, especially Master Sheng Yen from Taiwan. I organised another meeting at the UN in Geneva focused on women spiritual teachers. Out of this gathering, I formed the Global Peace Initiative of Women, which started out as a way to provide a global platform for women spiritual teachers, but soon it became a platform for both women and men.
The idea was to engage spiritual teachers more activity in addressing some of the world’s major problems – violence, conflict, climate change, environmental degradation, etc. Now I am spending more time writing, and I feel that is my true calling, where I can best contribute.
Please elaborate on GPIW that was intended to provide a platform for women and the Dharma traditions to play a larger role on the global stage.
The GPIW had two objectives – to increase the role of women in spiritual dialogues and to increase the participation of Hindu and Buddhist spiritual teachers. When I got involved in interfaith work in the late 1990s, it was pretty exclusive to the Christian, Muslim and Jewish community (the Abrahamic traditions), and not many women were involved. The main interfaith organisations didn’t even think it necessary to include the Dharma traditions, and so this became my mission. Over the years I organised so many gatherings around the world, always ensuring a balance between the Abrahamic and Dharma traditions, and gender balance. After 20 years of working in the inter-faith world, I began to feel it wasn’t advancing quickly enough and so have shifted my focus to sharing the wisdom of these traditions and thus have organized numerous gatherings on the theme of Dharma.
You once said, “Santhana (Sanatan) Dharma is poised to create a new awakening in a world full of chaos and conflict.”
As we can see yoga and meditation are spreading around the world, as are the concepts of karma and rebirth. I think this will impact the collective consciousness of the world as more and more people turn within for the answers. Sanatan Dharma provides practices for turning within.
You have a Masters Degree in sacred literature from Columbia University, specialising in the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita. What are your views on the Vedas and Bhagavad Gita?
In the 1980s, during my graduate work at Columbia, a Westerner taught me on the Vedas. In fact, it was insulting and I did not learn anything. It was later when I studied Sri Aurobindo’s book ‘The Secret of the Veda’ did I come to understand the true meaning of those sacred hymns. I have deep love for the Vedas and am writing about them now in a new book. While early on, the Gita was my companion, now it is the Vedas. I know myself to be a Vedic person, having lived during that time.
In your autobiography, “My Journey through Time” you shed light on the workings of karma- the law of cause and effect. Critics have often not only ridiculed but have also condemned the Indian theory of Karma.
My autobiography describes the process of my vivid recollections of past lives. It is a deep study of karma, the law of cause and effect. Just as people didn’t understand gravity once, so people don’t yet understand that karma is a universal law. Physical laws have their spiritual counterparts, or spiritual laws have their physical expressions. In physics, energy emitted brings about a certain outcome. Likewise, thoughts and actions (energies) yield a result. It is a fundamental law of the universe. When one studies it more, is awe struck by its beauty and magnificence: how desires and actions initiated in one life find their fulfillment later, sometimes centuries and even millennia later. Nothing is left undone: no love is unfilled, no desire unsatisfied. Instead of looking at a single chapter, we must look at the long arc of lives. We have all been kings or queens, servants, artisans, warriors, and so we should have understanding and compassion for all.
In your new book, ‘The Untold Story of Sita: An Empowering Tale for our Time’, you re-tell the story of Ramayana giving prominence to Ma Sita. What prompted you to retell the story of Sita in a unique way?
A few years ago, after a trip to Ayodhya, I began to have glimpses of a series of past lives, where I saw myself as a servant in the household of Maharaja Janak. Honestly, I didn’t know whether this was a past life recall as I had had so many times before, or was I channeling someone who had been a servant in that household. In the end I realised it didn’t matter because I was is the presence of Mata Sita, experiencing that narrative in a whole different way. I had read Valmiki’s ‘Ramayana’ many years earlier and never accepted the end part of Sita’s banishment. Of course, scholars will say that it was a later addition as can been seen by its different meter, etc. Yet, I wondered why then is it included in all the retellings of the story. So, I decided to record what I was witnessing, which shows Sita to be the creator, the designer of the events, not the victim, and of course there is no banishment at the end. The way the story is traditionally told does a tremendous disservice to Shri Ram, who is the essence of dharma. How anyone could think he would banish his divine wife who had been through so much and was pregnant with his children, is beyond me. The foundation of dharma is love, and that is what Shri Ram displays in every action of his life. Shri Ram and Mata Sita lived in the Treta Yuga, and as the story has been told and retold, during the less enlightened times, especially as the Kali Yuga approached, I am sure this ending was added by some disgruntled men who wanted to send a message to their wives. I learned and experience so much in the writing of this book, but the thing that touched me most was Mata Sita’s love for her servant, and it was not just that particular servant who tells the story. It was her love for everything. Her love was of such an exceptional quality that it still brings me to tears.
What are your views on religious conversions?
I strongly believe that organised conversions should be prevented and should be considered a form of cultural violence. This idea of imposing “salvation” on people is outdated, something of an era long past, and is the cause of so much suffering in the world. A strong stand needs to be taken against the missionary and proselytising religions. India has suffered so much from the imposition of Western and other foreign belief systems over the centuries, and the damage is still there. I myself recall two lives in India during the Islamic occupation and so have first-hand knowledge of the forced conversions and destruction of tens of thousands of temples. Now it is the Christians, of course not all, but some of the aggressive sects, wanting to convert the world. It is dangerous and should be stopped. Of course, I am not speaking of the voluntary change of religion. I identify as a Hindu but no one tried to convert me. Yogananda didn’t say you have to become a Hindu – to the contrary. He just said meditate, no matter what religion you are. But I found my natural inclination was toward Hinduism. But proselytisation is based on fear – accept this doctrine or you will be damned eternally. That is violence.
We have been continuously destroying our planet earth by our actions. Our beautiful mountains, serene rivers and the majestic oceans have all been polluted. What is the solution?
The solution to the ecological destruction is to love the earth again and to find a way of living that does not harm any of earth’s life systems. India should not follow the way of the west, of the modern consumer culture, but should look to its past to see how to create the future. The rest of the world will follow. It is time for India to lead –to treasure the rivers, protect and grow the forests, main an agricultural society, protect the integrity of food, use the sun’s energy, reduce carbon output and plastic use, and bring balance back again to society.
How can we bring spiritual resources to address critical global challenges, conflicts, social justice, and ecological scarring of the earth? Why do you suggest that only a spiritual consciousness is sufficiently transformative to meet the demands of our time?
People have to wake up. Inner change precedes outer change. When we truly know that by harming the earth, we are harming ourselves, perhaps we will change. When we know that by enabling a system that causes others to suffer, through poverty or injustice, we harm ourselves, then perhaps we will change. A deep understanding of interconnection and interdependence is needed for us to create systems based on these truths. That takes some inner shift. Of course, we have to act as well but once enough people change inside, grow in understanding, this will be reflected in the outer world. As we are within so will it manifest without. That is why the inner spiritual work is so necessary.
Your message to our readers?
My message to your readers – practice in your daily life love for the earth and all of her creatures in any way that you can. It matters. Every small act has an effect. Be mindful of how you use earth’s resources – use of plastic and other harmful things that end up in our oceans. Realise the tremendous wealth of wisdom within the Hindu tradition. Treasure it. Everything we need is there for a balanced life and for the attainment of the highest realisation.