(By John) I got up early, made coffee, and sat down in the living room of the shared apartment we’re staying in. I love morning: it’s so quiet, and during the night, my unconscious seems to have sorted things out, so I feel calm. And I get to have coffee! So I awoke today full of the urge to write about religion in this remarkable land.
In spite of India being a secular country, it’s utterly normal to be religious here. We see shrines, temples, mosques, churches, and religious pictures everywhere as our bicycle-rickshaw drivers steer us through traffic jams. Instead of Plastic Jesus on the dashboards, we see Plastic Krishnas, Ganeshas, Durgas, Buddhas, Guru Nanaks, and Shivas. The everyday greeting Lynnell left you with in her last post is namaste, meaning “I bow to The Divine in you.” It’s accompanied by praying hands and a little bow. People bring God into conversations all the time in India , and I’m not talking about “OMG” or “I swear to God,” which in America almost never literally refer to God nowadays, any more than goodbye does.
In keeping with the guiding metaphor of my sabbatical — and we will never stop being grateful to Edward Kim and the Faculty Advisory of Breck School for this year of a lifetime — India is trees and rivers all at once. I’m not sure how you describe trees intertwining with rivers without mixing metaphors, though: the branching of a tree means a split, or at least an evolutionary step, but the confluence of rivers signals the union of separate things.
Maybe you could picture Hinduism like this braided river plain on the Paraná in Brazil.
The gurus who developed Sikhism, on the other hand, combined elements of Hinduism, Islam, and their own spiritual experience. More to come in another post on our wonderful two days at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Maybe you could picture Sikhism being like the confluence of the Yangtse (left) and Jailing (right) Rivers in Chongching, China, below.
Yesterday, we visited the Baha’i House of Worship here in Delhi. We’ll tell you about that soon, also. For now, here’s one more river picture. Maybe the Baha’i Faith is like the mouths of the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar, with various streams coming together, progressively revealing the will of God to an evolving human race:
On the other hand, maybe Islam and Christianity are more like trees: the roots draw nourishment from many sources, and their religions surfaced as a single stem, but soon there were many branches, all reaching toward the sun, but often wrinkled and scarred at the branching-points. The branches tend not to reunite, though I think God longs for a reunion. These bare Frangipani trees caught my eye yesterday in the gardens of the Delhi Baha’i House of Worship:
I’ve spent most my life helping people understand different languages, cultures, and faiths as a teacher of French, History, and World Religions. As a boy of eleven, my parents encouraged me to apply to a Childrens’ International Summer Villages (CISV) camp, and it changed my life.
Two boys and two girls from each of nine countries gathered for a month in southern Holland to play sports and games, learn songs from each others’ countries, and make friends despite the language barrier. I’m not sure if I ever really thanked mom and dad properly for CISV, not to mention so many other world-enlarging gifts they gave me. My folks were deeply-rooted Detroit Catholics. Hardly world-travelers. They spoke only English and theirs was a bit of a mixed marriage: Dad’s family had been 100% French for generations, and mom was more typically mixed European-American.
CISV was for me what a church or synagogue youth group was for my peers, and I stayed involved in meetings and exchange programs until well after college. I became passionate about learning other languages, I corresponded with friends using those thin-paper aerogrammes, and then caught up with my friends at big conferences in places like Trento, Italy. The only “sacrament” we had was to stand in a big circle, right arms crossed over left, and sing the CISV song while raising or lowering the CISV flag. The second verse goes like this:
Here we live and eat and sleep,
Talk and laugh and somethings weep;
Here we share our hopes and fears,
Build a bridge across the years,
Sow a seed and plant a tree
Beneath whose branches there may be
All the nations gathered free
The late Dr. Doris Twitchell Allen invented C.I.S.V. so that something beautiful might grow from the ashes of World War II. Bigotry, hatred, religious intolerance, and dictatorship had scorched the Earth in Europe, North Africa, and Asia, and Auntie Doris’ gift to the world was to give children like me and my sisters unforgettable experiences before we had the chance to become intolerant. Walter Cronkite did a documentary about us, called Too Young To Hate. Margaret Mead called Doris’ idea “a stroke of genius.”
India reminds me of those international summer villages. We slept all together in a big dorm full of bunk beds, tried each other’s food, and learned to dance at least a half dozen folk dances like the Filipino bamboo pole dance Tinikling (left),
and the Mexican La Raspa (right). Photos from Fordneyfoundation.org and artsandpe.net.
In Agra, India, Lynnell and I we were lucky to find the extraordinary bicycle enthusiast / tour guide John Rosario, whose family later had us over for dinner. (Oh, man, we need to write a post about our ride together!) Their own Catholic priest, John said, regularly went over to the mosque for tea with the Imam, and participated in Hindu temple ceremonies. John’s family is originally from the west coast of India, and includes a Portugese grandfather (hence the family name). The family found the grave of a Sufi (Muslim) saint while digging the foundation of their house years ago. The Rosarios carefully moved the remains to a shrine (photo below) they built in the center of their garden, and painted the outside green, the color of Islam.
The fact he was a Muslim Saint, not Catholic, was utterly irrelevant. Left to right, below: John, Moses, their mom, Steffi, and Roslynn.
India is a bit like a giant CISV camp, with so many languages, nationalities, castes, and religions that real unity is still a dream; but we have been honored to meet a lot of dreamers. The last verse of the CISV song tells us there will be more to life than simply having fun now, but it’s just a reminder, not a warning.
That our children so may grow
In a world we did not know
Sharing all they have to give
Learning how to love and live
In our hands the future lies
Seize a moment here it flies
(optional stomp for emphasis in some camps) Stamp the present with an act
Dare to make our dreams a fact
And then, without letting go, everyone turns clockwise 180 degrees, making pretzel arms like in swing dancing, until we’re holding hands uncrossed, facing outward to meet the world. It’s pretty cool.
A couple of years ago, I gave a talk at St. John’s Church back home in Minneapolis and repeated it at Breck. It’s got lots of slides, and I titled it Many Paths To God. I later recorded the narration and put it on YouTube. Like a mountain we all climb, I said, the paths of our lives take many turns, and we start out in such different places. The religions of the world are each like a string of path-markers, with sherpas, cairns, shelters, and sometimes even ladders to help us do our climbing.
Our goal, we believe, is at the summit. We call it God. Other climbers may call it the Eternal Tao, Nirvana, or moksha, but the reality is beyond words. Some say you cannot reach it until you die, others claim you can at least glimpse the summit before death, and still others say they have been there and have come back down to encourage us to keep climbing and show us how to do it.
I was going to end this post there, but Brampal just came in and said something wonderful. He’s one of the hosts at the air bnb where Lynnell and I are now staying. We told each other good morning while he took off his shoes, and without prompting, he told me that he walks here every morning. It takes an hour, and the streets are so quiet.
Not knowing I was writing this, nor what I do for a living, he said, “Morning is God’s gift to us,” a fresh time for planning and praying. He told me my face and whole personality are so peaceful and happy. Of course that made me smile.
He asked me if Lynnell was sleeping, and I told him, “Yes. God’s gift to her is the late hours of the night.”
We both laughed.