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Posts Tagged ‘religion’

I have to confess that I’ve never really known a lot about Sikhs. I hadn’t really taken the time to understand what made a Sikh different from other Indians. I knew that their men wore turbans to keep up the hair they never cut; I knew they had wanted an independent state; I knew that separatists took over the Golden Temple and were killed in a violent military campaign in the 1980s. In response, two Sikh bodyguards had killed Indira Ghandi for revenge and then subsequently thousands upon thousands of Sikhs were murdered in Delhi and across India.

But with all this I didn’t know anything about the religion. So before we went to the Golden Temple, the most holy Sikh shrine, and the site of that terrible siege, I decided to read up. Sikhism is actually a combination of Hinduism and Islam that began in the 15th century as a rejection of caste and idolatry. Sikhs believe in reincarnation and karma, like Hindus, but they worship only one god, like Muslims. I liked the concept already.

Golden Temple at night

But by going to the Golden Temple I really felt like I got a sense of what Sikhism was about, and I have to say it impressed me.

Obviously the most inspiring and attention-grabbing element of going to the Golden Temple is the structure itself – inside a large rectangular wall-like building sits a lake, and in the lake is a temple made of marble and gold (750kg of gold in total). We went both at night and during sunrise and at both times the temple itself shone like the sun. Especially at sunrise, when the rising sun hit it directly, you almost couldn’t even look straight at it. It was incredible. As you go closer you notice the detail – the marble base and interiors were inlaid with stones set in beautiful and intricate patterns. A door leading into the temple is made entirely of silver. Painted frescos cover every inch inside. The mastery of skill that it must have taken to build the structure is staggering.

But once beyond the physical structure, I noticed that there were many elements that were different in visiting a Sikh temple than other temples or mosques across India. First, we were completely welcome everywhere. We paid nothing to get in, we were not barred from any place and we could go and do as we pleased. Most historical and religious sites have fees to enter and require that foreigners not pass through certain areas. The Sikhs didn’t seem to mind if we went in as far as we wanted – we could even watch as men prayed from their holy book. It was an incredibly spiritual place, alive with singing over loudspeakers and hundreds of worshipers praying day in and day out; and we were invited to take it all in.

Cooking food for everyone at the Golden Temple

Secondly, this kindness and acceptance of strangers extended to their own people – every Sikh temple is encouraged to serve food to the poor, and the communal kitchen at the Golden Temple is a sight unto itself. Huge vats full of dal and chai are stirred over large fires. Large buckets full of utensils sit next to steel boxes loaded with plates or bowls. And inside a large hall dozens of people sat eating meals at any given time of day. Even we were encouraged heartily to eat or drink chai if we desired. There was a donation box but no one asked us for money or indicated we were required to give a contribution. It was not something you see everyday.

I still wouldn’t claim to know much about Sikhism – but having seen the beauty of their holiest site and the acceptance of others within its walls I’m certainly glad I came to know a bit more.

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Kumbaya

A lot of the bad stories get told over and over again about Hindu-Muslim relations. There are a lot of truths in tales of rioting and murders. No one who has lived in Mumbai – or New York – could possibly try to minimize the devastation that can occur when religions collide.

But oftentimes these stories overshadow the day to day relations that are happening around us.

So one of the things I’ve really enjoyed about living here is watching people co-exist in a country that has seen so much turmoil over religion. From partition through the assassination of Indira Ghandi to the Bombay riots of 1992 up to the attacks here two years ago, it hasn’t been an easy ride. Yet I watch day in and day out as everyone seems to somehow make it work in a population where the majority (Hindus) are only 67% of the populace.

This has been most apparent to me in Dharavi, where everyone is literally living on top of each other and where there is incredible religious and cultural diversity. Dharavi was the horrifying epicenter of the Bombay riots 20 years ago but today it seems like there must be some improvement. I go into meetings and see Hindu women teaching Muslim women about their sexuality without any judgment. I see women wearing hijabs lay their heads on the shoulders of women in saris. I can’t explain it and I certainly would never profess to have a deep understanding of this community’s feelings about religion (that would be a bit naive) but I can only report what I see and it’s oddly comforting.

But the best thing to watch is what happens on 90 feet road on a Friday afternoon. In the middle of a crowded, dirty, hot and chaotic slum that is populated by a majority Hindu population, one side of the artery road is cleared for prayers. It causes traffic and confusion and adds time to everyone’s travels. But for just a few minutes hundreds of Muslim observers are given time to pray together in a place where there certainly isn’t space for a mosque large enough – or even homes large enough – to accommodate worshipers. It’s a small thing. But it’s not something I can imagine being allowed even in New York, the supposed home of liberalism and tolerance, where an out-of-the-way mosque’s construction was recently protested.

It’s a Pollyanna view. I’ve certainly also been privy to conversations detailing why our Pakistani neighbors on the 5th floor must be horrible or how Muslims don’t shower (no, really) and I’ve had to stand back and wonder whether I’ve been reverted to some bizarre version of the 1950’s in a racist but Indian state. It’s a reality. And there’s certainly a lot of religious turmoil happening outside of India (understatement of the century). But I’m going to keep believing that things are a little bit better than some might make it out to be

And its certainly a view that is reinforced by seeing it. So for now I’ll let some video do the talking for me. It really is a spectacular sight.

 

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Today I spent the entire day sitting inside, waiting. But I guess that days worth of killing time is nothing compared to the 60 years many people have waited for what transpired.

It was a big day in India, as you may or may not have heard. After decades of waiting, demolitions, murders, riots, religious furor and constant delays the Allahabad High Court declared a verdict on who controls 2.7 acres of land in Ayodhya.

You might wonder why so much drama and history was needed over a small piece of land. I would ask the same thing about certain parts of Jerusalem. But, as with many epics, it came down to religion. Is the alleged birthplace of Ram (a king who, in the legend of Ramayana, served as the human ‘avatar’ for the god Vishnu) as well as the site of a 16th century mosque that was demolished by Hindu nationalists in 1992. The demolition caused widespread riots and over 2,000 people were killed (riots 10 years later after a related train bombing saw another 1,000 people killed).

It is a long and complicated story as to how this tale that started with a mosque in 1528 and a court case beginning in 1949 ended up in a courtroom today. If you’re interested in a full timeline of events, I suggest you look at this helpful timeline, and if you want a full accounting of the ruling today read this.

For me this is not interesting just because of the outcome – the ruling stated that the land should be divided between 2 Hindu groups and one Muslim group, but all sides said they would appeal – but because it is just another fascinating display of what happens when religions collide.

How can a court even begin to decide whose religion deserves or has right to land? But they certainly tackled it head on here. To me the most befuddling part of the ruling is this: One of the justices, Dharam Veer Sharma actually wrote in his opinion, “The disputed site is the birth place of Lord Ram.”

As an American it is fascinating to see how religion can be woven into a court decision as though it is fact. And perhaps for many it is. But that’s hardly consolation to Muslims who think that their almost-500-year-old mosque was destroyed. And the land for the Muslims is no consolation to those who would swear that the mosque was built only after an original Hindu temple was destroyed.

The thing that gives me faith is this: as of now (knock on wood), there have been no major instances of violence. After a week of delays and waiting with bated breath to see what would happen, there’s a collective sigh that nothing has happened.

Has India moved beyond its religious tensions? Of course not. But in a country that is reeling from its embarrassment over the Commonwealth Games, maybe this is a moment to stand proud. It’s not over yet, but perhaps the long-running suit can now hope for closure, instead of fearing more bodies will be added to the count of this saga.

And birthplace or no birthplace, mosque or no mosque, that is something to celebrate – especially now that I feel safe enough to leave my house.

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So a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim stood around talking about Hindus…

That sounds like the start of a joke, but it was just a regular day in our household. On this occasion, Nisha and our driver (who are Muslim and Christian, respectively) were trying to explain to me why I should not participate in Ganesh Visarjan, the end of the Ganpati celebrations where millions of people crowd Mumbai’s beaches to immerse their statues of the god Ganesh into the water.

The Ganpati crowd at Juhu beach

“You will not want to go there ma’am,” our driver said, “It will be all crowds and drunk people.”
Nisha concurred, “People there are crazy, you don’t know what can happen.”

I didn’t want to mention to Nisha that this was what the driver had said to me about going to Muhammad Ali Rd during her holiday of Ramzan.

I spoke to my friend D (who is a Jain Indian raised in America but has a lot of family in Bombay) — she said everyone was telling her not to go as well. “They all think unless we have a rooftop to watch from we shouldn’t go – it’ll be too crazy and dirty.”

This is the funny thing about Bombay – everyone lives in harmony until you start talking about people of a different caste or religion. Then suddenly everyone of the opposing caste or religion is a drunk dirty lout.

I, however, was not going to miss Ganesh Visarjan. It’s one of the most exciting days in Mumbai and I wanted to see it for myself. Six million people take 200,000 statues of the god Ganesh to Mumbai’s various beaches and immerse him in the water – setting him on a journey and supposedly taking the misfortunes of his followers away with him. All week I’d seen the Ganesh statues, large and small, with people dancing throughout the streets. And I wanted to watch as the festival came to its glorious end.

Rolling Ganesh towards the sea

So after a bit of planning we decided to go to Juhu beach – it’s not too far from Bandra and its one of the less crowded areas. When I say less crowded this just means there were probably tens of thousands of people crowding the beach instead of potentially hundreds of thousands. There are 27 immersion spots throughout Mumbai, but the ones in South Bombay are the most crowded. We figured it would be best to stay close to home and out of the massive crowds.

A few friends and I went to a bar on the beach and grabbed a table early. The real festivities start at night so by 3pm when we arrived there were just a smattering of people with their idols. But as the sun got lower more and more and more people began to show up with increasingly large Ganesh statues.

The Ganesh that we followed

Imagine looking out and seeing a sea of people going from the end of the beach all the way up to the water. Everyone is excited, many people are singing, and every so often you start to see a large portion of the crowd begin to move like one, with a big Ganesh in the middle as they all head towards the sea. You can watch the people and the Ganesh until it suddenly sinks and cheers go out. But when you look somewhere else the same thing is happening all over again.

D and I decided we wanted to follow a Ganesh from beginning to end. So we spotted a big one, left our table, and went out to join in. The crowd surrounding it was huge. The Ganesh was taller than any man and everyone was surrounding it, singing, and celebrating. They then lifted our Ganesh onto a cart (slowly but surely) and began to wheel it toward the sea with everyone still singing and celebrating. We ran with it, joining in and letting ourselves get caught up in the moment.

Our Ganesh going out to sea

I was so caught up I didn’t realize I’d gone right into the water up to my thigh. I turned around and saw D had not followed me – Mumbai’s beaches are notoriously dirty. Oil and other unpleasantries mix to create a blackened version of the sea. With the many Ganesh statues the water becomes an even more dangerous place (There are many people here who are understandably against Ganpati because of the horrible implications of thousands of plaster and chemically painted statues being left at the sea floor). I stepped back, ignored my dirty legs and watched as our Ganesh was taken out to sea. And then, in and instant, he was gone. He had gone to the bottom of the ocean and everyone was cheering. We’d been allowed to share in this one group’s moment of their Ganpati and we felt it was ours too (To watch a video of ‘our’ Ganesh and his journey, see below).

The crowd growing as night falls on Juhu beach

We went back to the bar, exhilarated and excited. We stayed awhile longer, watching the crowd swell more and more as time went on. We left after it got dark, but for most real celebrants the night was just beginning. As we drove home, one side of the road was closed as thousands of people were in their own processions with their own Ganesh, making their way towards the sea.

I asked our driver how his night was. “I hadn’t seen the Ganesh immersion since I was a boy. I always avoid it now. But you know, it was really fun to see it.” Yes it truly was.

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