I adore a particular Hindu narrative about Shiva. Sitting in a Himalayan cave, Shiva sits in meditation. Playfully, his lover, his bride, Uma, comes up behind him and covers his eyes. In the brief seconds of innocent blindness, the earth quakes, darkness engulfs the world, chaos, destruction. But then Shiva’s third eye awakens, lifting its dormant lid, replenishing light upon the earth, restoring order. How the closed eyes of a god can bring a world to its knees…
Religion is beyond pervasive, it is intricately woven into Indian life. There is no separation. Each day is dedicated to a deity. Dime store posters hung on walls of every home I entered. Durga and her tiger. Shiva with his many arms, performing his dance of destruction. Saraswati playing her veena, perched on a blossoming lotus, swan by her feet. Ganesha, the elephant god, with his wondrous trunk. Hanuman, the monkey god, the one who helped Rama rescue his wife, Sita. Vishnue the preserver. Brahma, the creator. Kali, blackened skin, tongue sticking out, skulls and blood around her, she is death, she is powerful, she is the end. Each contain their own sacred narratives, their intoxicating myths of life, destruction, foolishness, forgiveness. Iconic images with layers of meaning, no item held in their palm is without purpose, no mudra pointless, it all is symbolic, equal importance.
In the mornings, I would watch the mother of the upstairs flat walk down the steps to the small shrine. It could easily go unnoticed to the ignorant eye. Merely bricks white washed piled in a fashion to make perhaps a miniature outdoor oven. But inside its belly three painted tiles held Ganesha, Shiva, and Durga. At their feet were crafted lingams and an array of sacred objects. She would light incense, pray, puja.
Even religion and business collide. On the ride to Amritsar, I saw a business called ‘Shiva Tires’ and it made me laugh so much. Because I knew what an odd thing it be to drive down a street in the U.S. and find a business called ‘Jesus Tires.’ How our cultures perceive and incorporate religion into life was at times drastically different.
Materialism is another unique facet of Hinduism. Icons, whether in poster or sculpture, were sold in the bazaar no differently than a mango. Buddhist prayer beads were strung up in stores just as often as I’d witness a monk thumbing his strand. But these icons do not take on sacred importance until the deity is believed to manifest within it. Before then, it is but a trinket. But once it is placed in a home, in a shrine, in one’s heart, and the owner asks to have the privilege of the god(dess) presence in the home, does the icon awaken. The act of puja itself is an offering, but this exchange between devotee and god is an intimate relationship, it is Darshan…to see. And it is this exchange of seeing and being seen, the presence of a god, caring for its momentary bodily home like if it were a loved one, to bathe it, offer it sweets and drink, items pleasing and entertaining, it is a relationship acknowledged, present, active every day in life. The god shares and is present for even the most mundane occurrences of the day, but has never abandoned or turned away from the devotee. This relationship is written in a language similar to the deity as one’s lover or as one’s child or mother.
In the hotel, the one with the lovely carpeted floors beneath my feet, had a large icon of Ganesha right in the lobby, carved beautifully. Taxi drivers taped tiny paper images to the car visors. Devotees walked with a red dot upon the brow after having performed puja at a temple. Orange turbans were blessed cloth from the Golden Temple. And even when not in materialistic form, there were the echoes of Tibetan monks chanting, a deep baritone sound that cascaded down the Himalayas. The soft prayers of the woman from above.
And never in my time there did a person attempt to persuade me to convert. No need. Spirituality was all around, saturating the world, that there was no way I could not be effected. Impossible for me not to know moments of great serenity, clarity, thoughtfulness. Moments of peace upon my heart and spirit. There was no need to persuade me because it is assumed I am somehow pursuing, maintaining, am active with god(dess). This is a rare find, a land of all the religions of the world resting on her bosom, and no tradition seeks to dominate its motherland. Yes, there have been struggles, bombings, violence at times between Hindus and Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus, but in general, the acceptance of other traditions isn’t merely tolerance in India, it is a purer form of acceptance.
To say it is okay for my Muslim neighbor to pray to Allah is one thing, but to hear the daily prayers from my window and not be bothered, perhaps find a spiritual beauty in the Arabic, the words lifting up to god, that is what isn’t seen in the U.S. And it is different in that land likely for the reason many things are done the way they are. Why have privacy, why hide, when so much of life’s occurrences are shared and common to all? It is not odd that one is performing puja, praying, meditating, but what would be odd and of great concern is the one who does none of these things, believes in none of these things. It is that which would raise eyebrows and cause concern.
The religion and spirituality of India is like nothing I have witnessed in my life. In no other land do I think I could bear witness to so many traditions all active in society and daily living and find that it is of such normalcy that Indians laugh at perplexed foreigners like I wondering how it can be such. And though I tried, or hoped, I could not be exempt from being effected by the spiritual and religious elements of Indian culture.