It’s been about two months since our last post from Amritsar. So much has changed in our world since then and now that we are finally getting back to writing it’s hard to remember all the intricate details of our time in Rajasthan and the rest of Northern India. I will try to summarize most of what I remember from the photos in the captions.
After leaving the Golden Temple in Punjab we spent our remaining time traveling across Northern India, heading east towards Calcutta. During this time we visited several sacred Hindu sites and obtained a deeper understanding of Hinduism and how it manifests in Indian society today.
Hinduism is probably the hardest religion in the world to develop a clear understanding. It is considered the world’s oldest religion. It contains a variety of ideas on spirituality and tradition, but has no ecclesiastical order, no unquestionable religious authority, no governing body, and no binding holy book. Hindus can be polytheistic, monotheistic, pantheistic, agnostic, atheistic, or humanistic. This post is referring to the most common form of Hinduism, in which there are over a million gods, thousands of pages of teachings, and many more complexities and contradictions in the way it is practiced. While reading this remember I am not an expert on this topic. This writing is based on my limited knowledge of Hinduism and the small time we’ve spent in India.
Basically, there are three original gods: Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver), and Shiva (the destroyer). Most other gods are descendants (avatars) of Vishnu- the most popular ones being Rama, Krishna, Lakshmi, Durga and Haunaman. There are a few other gods descended from Shiva, the most popular being Ganesh (the one with the elephant head). Each god is the god of a worldly entity and is responsible for its existence on earth. For example: Ganesh is the god of education, wisdom, good fortune, remover of obstacles and wealth. Most gods have many characteristics that are often conflicting in nature like gods of both good and bad.
Hindus believe God is in everything. Every human, every animal, and every plant has God in it. In my opinion, this is a beautiful philosophy. For everything to have God in it means everything is worthy of love. This belief allows Hindus to cultivate more love for all things in existence, (or at least in theory it does).
For example, when greeting someone in Nepal and India people say ‘namaste’, at times with their hands together in prayer and a quick bow of the head. Literally translated namaste means ‘I bow to the Godly/ good qualities within you’. Although the greeting is casual, its purpose is to acknowledge the divinity that each person holds within them and to give them the utmost respect on this simple basis. It is easy to see the authenticity of this belief when interacting with Hindu people. There is often a smile and gentle heartedness in a Hindus’ demeanor that makes this American think – Why are they so nice to me? What do they want from me?
Hindus believe in karma and reincarnation. A person’s good actions and merit will be rewarded in this life and in the next life. Also, meditation and yoga are thought to bring one closer to God. There are some ceremonies and rituals a devout Hindu will do throughout their life to obtain more merit. One of these acts is to take a pilgrimage to the many holy sites throughout the country. Christina & I visited a couple of these sites.
The first was the Pushkar Lake in the state of Rajasthan. The lake is believed to have formed by the tears of the god Shiva, after the death of his wife, Sati. The story goes that when Sati died, Shiva cried so much and for so long, that his tears created two holy ponds. Pushkar Lake is one of those two ponds. Around the lake are Ghats, a series of steps leading into the pond. Many people travel thousands of miles to wash their bodies in the holy water.
The most famous Hindu site in India we visited was Varanasi, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. It’s considered the spiritual capital of India and is thought to have also been founded by the god Shiva. The Ganges River that flows along the city is what draws Hindu people here. Many believe that dying in the city and having their ashes poured into the river will bring salvation. It will stop the cycle of rebirth and bring their souls to rest indefinitely. It is probably the most interesting place we’ve ever been to. One common site is to see cremations take place right along the bank of the river. One night, just after sunset, Christina and I walked to the Manikarnika Ghat where the cremations take place. We arrived to find several large bonfires along the river where bodies were being burned. We also saw people, who we assumed to be family members, watching close by. There was no cremation facility, the bodies burned out in the open and smoke filled the air. When a cremation is finished the family will take the ashes to a private area along the river. This is the ultimate rite of passage that many families would want for their relative after death.
There are about 80 cremations that take place each day at this Ghat. What makes this daily event even more interesting is the condition of the river. Besides the continual flow of ashes, raw sewage and pollution from the city run directly in the river. Although it’s been a point of concern for the government, you can still find people bathing and washing their clothes along the bank.
About 40% of Hindus are vegetarian. Animals are considered holy and over time some have become more holy than others. Cows, elephants, monkeys, and snakes are some animals that rank highly on the Hindu Animal Holiness Index, cows being ranked highest.
Everyone always wants to know about the cows. Why are Hindu cows holy? In the Hindu religion cows are said to be the “mother of the earth”. They are worshipped so highly because they provide everything a person needs to survive. Throughout history and even today a cow’s milk and cheese are a secure food source in times of hardship, their dung can be used for fuel and for fertilizer, and the cows can be used to plow their fields.
Cows roam free everywhere in India. Anyone that needs milk can take it from any cow on the street and then release it for the next person to milk…or so I was told. Just don’t kill a cow. Anyone who kills a cow whether on purpose or by accident will spend a lengthy amount of time in Indian jail – 5-10 years. Nowadays a cow killer could even be hung by their peers. This happened just a few months ago in northern India. It is one example of the many contradictions and ironies in Indian society.
Someone once told me that everything you could say about India, you could also say the opposite is true. I never really understood what this meant until I came here. Now, having been in India for some time I can think of many examples how this is indeed true. In all major organized religions there are contradictions between what is worshipped and what is practiced. Hinduism is no different.
For example, Hinduism has the strongest presence of divine feminine of the world religions from ancient times to the present. The religion speaks of the divinity and equality of all people and has numerous goddesses, which are worshipped by men and women alike. The goddess is even worshiped at the heart of many festivals and traditions. But throughout history women in Indian society have been widely marginalized and treated as inferior to men. In the last few years women’s rights have become a major issue and there have been improvements, but in some states women are still treated as second class citizens.
Most Hindus speak as if everyone in their country is their brother or sister and in many cases this is reflected in the love they show each other. But there is also a huge wealth gap in the country. People in many cases are starving while a few have enough to last them countless lifetimes. The caste system, and the idea that a person’s worth and value to society is preordained at birth, is still not very far from some people’s consciousness.
With the recent election of President Modi a national hardline form of Hinduism is developing, which has little respect or tolerance for other religions within the country. In recent years there have been more acts of violence on groups of other faiths by more extreme Hindu people. From a religion that teaches “our guests are like gods” this is a very interesting development. (Side note: Just to be clear I don’t think Hinduism in any way promotes violence or intolerance. Just like any other religion in the world, it depends on what you bring to it.)
Hindu’s developed the Kama Sutra and there are many old temples around the country with graphic sexual engravings. But present day Hindus are extremely conservative in dress and sexuality. To do otherwise would ostracize oneself from society. Hindu women must cover up most of their bodies in public, sometimes even their face. Yet every time I’m near a river or lake of worship I see women strip down and bathe in front of everyone completely naked.
Besides these contradictions, there are a few other things I’ve found interesting while traveling India. For one, there isn’t an actual price to things a lot of the time. The price is the price you are willing to pay for it. This concept is hard for westerners to understand. It makes us feel like we are constantly getting cheated or ripped off. If you find out that other people are paying less for the same item you feel cheated. Most Indians don’t see it this way. They feel that if you are willing to pay more than someone else then that’s what it’s worth and that’s what they will charge you.
When you ask locals a question two things are pretty common, that the answer you will get is “yes” and a head bobble will follow. This response actually means one of four things- yes, no, maybe, and I don’t know. Culturally it is impolite to say no or disagree so yes is a common answer to every question. A lot of the time it’s easy to read a person’s mannerisms to figure out the real answer, but it has taken time to understand this.
Most Indians don’t say please or thank you (unless they are talking to westerners). As it was explained to me by a good friend, the reason for this is they feel it distances people from one another. “Why would you thank me for something? You are my brother I am happy to give to you. Why do you thank the vendor after you buy something? It was a mutual benefit no need for either person to thank the other.” It actually makes many Indians uncomfortable when “please” and “thank you” are used in excess.
Writing critically about another country’s religion and society makes me feel uneasy. There are so many cultures living within India that it’s difficult to make a generalization that can hold true throughout the entire country. It is also impossible to pass judgement on the differences of India. I feel that if I don’t understand something that doesn’t make it wrong and doesn’t give me justification to criticize. Someone once told me that you can not make judgments on the ways of the East because you are always looking at it through the eyes of the West. To fully understand something you have to be a part of it and this is not something I am able to do. Although India has many problems and contradictions it is still one of my favorite countries in the world. I also noticed a lot of these social problems mentioned are very similar to the ones we face in the US.
After traveling India I still feel all humans worldwide have a lot in common with each other. And that any differences we have are only cultural…That’s it.