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Madison Hindu priest strives to 'let his light shine'

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Frank Gaetano Morales turns his apartment into an ashram, a place for spiritual teaching, practice and retreat, every Tuesday night. (Michelle Stocker photo)

When a search for God or life's meaning begins, much of the work is cerebral and solitary, but outside guidance also may be helpful.

On Tuesday nights, for about a dozen people, the search goes on in Frank Gaetano Morales' apartment. His living room becomes an "ashram," a place to think, to teach, to unite, and the modest spiritual guide will explain that he has nothing original to say.

Since 1986, Morales has been a Hindu priest who follows an ancient religious tradition, the world's third largest after Islam and Christianity. A large part of the job, as he sees it, is to dispel myths and explain 5,000-year-old teachings in a modern way.

Everyone, Morales believes, searches for truth, "even if we think we're looking for other things."

What good can come out of it? "Maybe I'm more greedy, egotistical, clinging to others -- or things, not as compassionate as I'd like to be," he says. "Finding this out can be a blessing. Then we are able to change."

Usually the weekly and one-hour "satsangha" at his home involves meditation, silent and guided forms, with a focus on breathing. There also may be chanting -- feeling unity and connection from the melodic resonance and repetition of simple syllables.

What are the misconceptions? Hindus do not worship idols, or cattle. They are not all from India. They do not need to wear bindi (a gem "drop" or design on the forehead) or a sari (draped, loose-fitting garment) to be true to the religion.

"I'm an American," Morales says. "Hinduism is a religion, not the same as being from India, even though we think of it as a race or ethnicity."

Meat is not eaten because it would involve killing, which conflicts with the religion's beliefs in non-violence and reincarnation. There is one Hindu temple in Wisconsin, near Pewaukee. The Hindu presence in Madison is small, Morales says, typically ethnic-based and dependent on gatherings in homes.

He looks at his ashram as a way to unite Hindus in the Madison area, and a way to help others see what they have in common with the religion. Vegetarians who meditate and practice yoga are closer to the Hindu religion than they may think.

"To them, it is a lifestyle more than a path of faith," he says. "I see myself as a bridge between these two communities, which don't communicate well with each other."

Go to a Hindu temple, and Morales says 99 percent of the worshipers will be from India. Go to a yoga class, and he contends a similar percentage will be non-Indian.

"Yoga is Hinduism in practice," he says.

Morales is an only child who was raised in Brooklyn. He says he first read the Bhagavad Gita (an ancient and sacred Hindu text) at age 10 and decided four years later -- during his first visit to a Hindu temple -- that he would devote his life to the religion and its yoga spirituality.

He was a celibate Hindu monk for six years but now is engaged to marry a woman who, although open and accepting of the religion, does not consider Hinduism to be her faith.

That sits well with Morales.

"We don't believe in conversion," he says. "We believe in teaching. There is a strong intellectual component to what we do and a philosophy that we practice."

Morales began teaching yoga and meditation in Chicago in 1988. He has taught yoga and Hindu study classes in Madison for about three years and is founder of the American Institute for Yoga Studies.

He conducts a certified yoga teacher training program that involves 200 hours of class time, and he lectures nationwide about the Hindu religion, from Cornell University to the University of Houston.

In 2001, Morales earned a Ph.D. from UW-Madison, in Asian languages and cultures. "I've pretty much put academia behind me," he says. "I want to teach in a simple sort of way, teach people who want to know truth."

Up to now, it all has been low-key, Morales says, but now he has been encouraged by his students to "let my light shine," although "I want to keep what I do quiet, authentic, real."

He considers Hinduism to be separate from New Age spiritual paths, noting that the latter term tends to mean "religion lite."

"Hinduism has a goal, a tradition, a world view behind it," he says. "There's nothing New Age about it."

This is not a religion for those who are merely curious, he says. "It is for those who are ready to pursue God in a serious way, to surrender to truth and not use religion to feed the ego."

The work is hard but does not need to be unpleasant or a guilt-ridden ride.

"At some point, we each will ask these very important questions: Who am I? Is there a God? What does God want? What will bring me true happiness, not visceral but a deep, inner fulfillment, peace, calm, joy?"

Morales says he lives simply and does not aspire to be a rich man. "I don't spend a lot of money to entertain myself," he shrugs. "I don't drink."

In the morning, he says he meditates privately, in front of his home "puja," a small altar that he says is representative of God. He offers incense, flowers and water as a part of this worship ritual.

A goal is to rent a place for yoga instruction and the weekly ashrams. Another hope is to find a building and land that is near but outside of Madison, for an ashram that is both a spiritual retreat center and a place to conduct his classes.

For more about these efforts and Hinduism, go to or call 280-8375. The weekly ashrams, 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Tuesdays, are open to the public. The suggested donation is $5; call for the location.

E-mail: [email protected]

Published: 12:44 AM 2/09/04

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