Thursday, November 1, 2012

India 29: Hindus, Christians and a Blog Pause


A couple nights ago I went to dinner at the home of the people who run the company I’ve been working with, an apartment they rent in a middle class neighborhood.  Pavithra had brought home garland or leis:  hundreds of beautiful flowers strung together.  In this part of India flowers are so numerous and inexpensive they are used the way one would use crepe in a Fourth of July float, i.e. abundantly.  Here it is:

The flowers were for the shrine to the Hindu Gods represented by many statues and pictures in a small room which comes with every apartment for this purpose.  Pavithra wreathed each picture and statue with flowers—perhaps a dozen of them.

Of all the world’s religions, the Hindu religion is perhaps the most distant from what we experience in the United States.  It is the world’s oldest religion, one of the largest, certainly one of the most colorful and it is over-the-top different from anything I’ve ever known.

Preparing for India I began to read the Bhagavad Gita and a children’s version of the Mahabarata, two texts which are fundamental in the Hindu religion.  But I found and read something easier instead.  What I know is how little I know.

There are said to be about 300 million Hindu deities, which means dieties for every purpose and particular to every place and that every aspect of life has religious significance.  At the center is Brahman, the ultimate reality, formless and eternal, in other words, God.  But God takes many forms and personalities, inhabits many places and can be honored called up or invoked by human activity, such as decorating with flowers.   There is God in the person of Vishnu, the preserver, Shiva, the destroyer but also creator and Lord Krishna who is the subject of the Mahabarata. 

In the time I have been here there has been a long celebration in honor of Ganesh, the god in elephant form invoked to initiate undertakings, and we just finished the nine days in honor of the goddess Durga. 

I went to Mysore which is the center for this celebration, for the ninth day in which a jumbo elephant carries a 550 kilogram throne of gold through the streets.  It is a massive celebration but such a mad crush that I went to my hotel, fell asleep and then watched it on television since it was televised nationwide for what must have been six hours, with hundreds of performers at a culminating event.

Coming up in two weeks is Divali, which is a similarly massive and is called the Festival of Light.  It stresses the struggle between good and evil and is considered an auspicious time to buy things.  So the purchase of homes, cars and all manner of goods is concentrated during this time.

I don’t understand much of this.  It seems like Super Bowl Week and Christmas every month, with the accompanying commercialization.  The last day of Durga Puna is another  auspicious day to buy something and when bargaining for fabrics I ask for the special price during this event.

What I know is that India is soaked with religion and in spite of all the bloody stories and rampant sexuality in many of those stories, and a recent history of religious conflict, there is a cheerful and optimistic tone to all of this.  Pavithra’s precocious seven year old daughter, Bebo, told me more stories than I could possibly remember about gods and their triumph over demons.  Surely these are myths, I say to myself, yet they are very present and immediate for Hindus.  The gods have true power and intervene in life on earth. 

I have to remind myself that focusing on the Lives of the Saints,--stories which I grew up with, with a much smaller cast of characters—would seem bizarre to many people.  I say that because I’m sometimes thinking to myself, do grown, professional people believe all this?  They have little elephants on the dash board the way some of us might have had a plastic Jesus.  Except that we’ve put the plastic Jesus behind us, back in parochial school long ago, while Hindus of all walks of life seem to accept the efficacy of the gods merrily, readily and matter of factly.   Of course you invoke Ganesh before an undertaking.

Which all leads up to this blog going on vacation.

More precisely, I am leaving later today for an ashram five hours south of Bangalore when I will be for six night and five days before finish my time here with nine days in north India. 

The place I am going is called Shantivanam.  It is a Christian center run by Benedictine priests, like a monastery, except that for 50 years its purpose has been to explore, reconcile with and relate to Hinduism.  The moving spirit was Bede Griffiths who was raised in England, came under the influence of C. S. Lewis at Oxford and lived his life in three phase.  In the first he saw God in nature and found inspiration in poets such as Wordsworth, Yates and Colleridge.  In the second he awoke to Christ, joined the Catholic Church of the John Cardinal Newman era and became a priest.  In the third phase he explored Eastern religion and specifically Hinduism after moving to India.  He founded two ashrams, adopted the simple life of the poor and went deep into a Hinduism which seems far removed from the festivals I have been watching.

In particular, Griffiths was interested in the Christian experience of God in the Trinity and the same experience(which is not the right word) in Hinduism.  While Christians speak of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Hindus speak of Being, Knowledge and Bliss.  The Shantivanam web site refers to “Beyond Religion” meaning that every true religion goes beyond religion to the One and non-duality.

I don’t understand much of this either but Griffiths was friends with Thomas Keating who revived Centering Prayer and Keating was very much like a man I came to know, appreciate and sat with.  Father Thomas Hand, a Jesuit who spent the later part of his life reconciling East and West, found his true vocation as a priest in a Zen monastery in Japan.  He was a teacher to me, if at a distance, and my wife and I sat with him on several occasions at Mercy Center in Burlingame, California.  His book A Taste of Water, co-written with a nun from Taiwan. is his attempt to meld Christianity and Eastern Religion in very explicit ways. 

Hand’s language—also hard for me to capture—was  like that of Bede Griffiths.  Griffiths died 15 years ago but others are carrying on and Hand died maybe five years ago. 

There is much more to be said—about Griffith’s conviction that the Christian church was and is too wedded to Greek and Roman thought and thus not universal; about his great interest toward the end of his life in God as feminine and reconciliation with the body; and of his longing to bring the great religions together to preserve the earth and accomplish justice (his thinking being close to that of Gandhi). 

There is much more to be said but I will not try to say or write here because the hour is late.

So our little blog will go dark for the next week or so, to reemerge in Jaipur.  I presume I will find out who won the presidential election.  Things are looking much better in what we are reading here.  I’ve been encouraged to join a sort of world pray-in or common aspiration for Barack at 7:30 tomorrow Indian time which is just a few hours from now.  Namaste and good night, y’all. 



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