Standing in the Presence of a Hindu Goddess
Tammy S.J. Lanaghan
Is it possible for someone outside of a religious tradition to understand it in a way that will be honest to it? Can a Christian understand what it means to be a Hindu without becoming Hindu? Can a Hindu understand Christianity?
Some would argue that is impossible. For them, religious experience – what people “feel” when they enter into a place of worship or read a particular passage or see an image - is wholly different for each tradition, making it impossible to find a common ground of experience that allows for people from different religious traditions to achieve some level of connection. Thus, efforts to understand one another, to talk with one another, are futile, and ought not be attempted. Yet, if we take this stance of exclusivity, then the very ability to enter into dialogue with one another becomes impossible.
I strongly disagree with the position that religious traditions are so wholly different that we cannot possibly build bridges of understanding. At the same time, however, I am wary of the extreme, which would lead us to the conclusion that, in the end, all religious experiences are, at heart, identical because all religious traditions point to the same Ultimate Reality. There are plenty of books out there that espouse this position in a way that does violence to the religious traditions they claim are the same. No Hindu, or Christian, would recognize their religious tradition in books like this. So, how are we to enter into a dialogue that seeks mutual understanding, while remaining true to our own background and preserving the integrity of the other religious traditions not our own? This is an enormous challenge that calls upon our honesty, intellect, and respect for others.
To explain what I mean, I will share with you an experience that I had when I first went to the temple home of the goddess about whom I write my dissertation, Sri Mahalakshmi, who resides in Kolhapur, India. When I look at the pictures of her that are sitting on my desk at home (reproduced here), I can readily say with the thousands of people who go to her temple every day that I am overwhelmed with love for her and think that she is very beautiful. There is a considerable history behind this statement, however. How have I come to be able to see beauty in this image that, from a non-empathetic perspective, is merely a block of stone that is not even a particularly beautiful piece of sculpture worthy of being placed in a museum? What makes her beautiful to me and to the thousands who come to see and be seen by her? To explain this, I can only share with you my intellectual journey that has led me to this point of empathy – a journey that is rooted as much in acquiring what we might call “book knowledge” as in reflection on my own emotional experiences as I worship in my home congregation.
The first time I met Sri Mahalakshmi in person was about seven years ago during my first trip to India. I went with a friend of mine whose family had worshipped this goddess for close to six hundred years. It was their family tradition to go on pilgrimage to see Sri Mahalakshmi whenever there was a big event in the family: a marriage, a birth, an illness and recovery, success in business, etc. My friend, however, had not been when she was married because she was living in the States by then and couldn’t afford to make the trip. Besides, her husband’s family worshipped a different deity, and traditionally, women were expected to adopt their husbands’ family deity in place of their own. In cases like these, women’s family deities often become “chosen” deities who receive individual worship, but do not require the more formalized worship that family deities receive. This is not exactly the situation of my friend, but suffice it to say that this trip was a major event in her life – the opportunity to meet a goddess who has always been present in her imagination, but whom she had never met in person, at least in a temple.
It was also an important event in my life, yet; I knew deep down that what lay at the heart of the event for me was very different from my friend’s experience. I was also meeting Sri Mahalakshmi for the first time, but it was as an “outsider” to the tradition, as a scholar who had a lot of “book learning” but had no experience of “on-the-ground Hinduism.” This difference in our position became increasingly apparent to me the longer I spent at the temple.
Entering into a Hindu temple is a very different experience from walking into a Christian church. It is dark and crowded. The floor, across which you walk barefoot, is covered with dirt tracked in by all the bare feet that pass through each day. The marble is contoured from the hundreds of years of that sand and dirt being scraped across the surface. My baby-steps were tentative and worried and I wondered if I might stub my toe against a raised threshold I couldn’t see because of the dark, or be tripped up by an indentation in the floor that had become deep from the centuries of wear and tear under the innumerable feet of previous visitors.
When my friend and I reached the central shrine of the temple, I was further confronted with confusion and even shame. People jostled one another for a place immediately in front of the doorway of the central shrine. Unwilling to use my elbows, I found myself systematically moved backward, almost against my will, until my back was against the chain that went around the pillars of the room before the shrine where traditionally dancing would have been performed for the entertainment of Sri Mahalakshmi. I knew that I should be up closer to take darshan – the important exchange of seeing between deity and worshipper – but I was at a loss as to how to push myself up to the place immediately before the door. Besides, being 5’7”, I towered over nearly everyone else, an excuse for me to hang back: I could take darshan without moving closer because Sri Mahalakshmi could see me and I could see her over the heads of everyone else. I might as well give those shorter than me the better position to see from, I reasoned to myself.
But there was far more underlying my reasoning as I stood there that first visit. A stream of emotions overwhelmed me. Panic bordering on revulsion over the crowds and the pushing as people fought over position. Disappointment and embarrassment over the fact that, despite my love for the tradition and my intellectual knowledge about what was supposed to happen in a Hindu temple, I didn’t have the emotional connection: nothing happened for me despite the fact that I’d come 10,000 miles to stand before this goddess. My heart didn’t leap up; I didn’t feel any spiritual connection to this goddess or the people surrounding me. And I suddenly began wondering whether or not, as a Christian, I should even be there. Was I polluting the temple? Would my Christian God forgive me for being in the presence of another deity? Had I wasted 12 years of my life studying religious tradition with which I now found I could not engage without perhaps violating my own beliefs and traditions?
That was an important day for me, for I moved to a new understanding of what it means to enter into the study of a religious tradition. It is not enough to know all of the information about a tradition. I could spend hours explaining the technicalities in the theological arguments over the nature of ultimate reality or how the divine makes itself present in a stone or metal image at the heart of a Hindu temple. I could have done this that day seven years ago. I could have explained to you that a Hindu temple built in the northern style is a symbolic microcosm of the universe, the central spire representing the central mountain from which all else spreads out and under which is the “womb house” containing the seed of the universe, the image of the deity. I could have told you that statues in these “womb rooms” are consecrated in such a way as to invite the deity to imbue the stone with its life breath, thereby enlivening the stone so that people are coming into the presence of the divine, not worshipping a stone (as so many of the early Christian missionaries argued). I could have told you that the act of darshan involves a mutual seeing of one another: the deity’s eyesight reaching out to meet the worshipper’s eyesight halfway.
But this is all just factual information that, in the end, does not really convey what goes on internally for people as they stand in the presence of the divine. This is what those who would argue that we cannot really understand what another religious tradition is about mean when they say only people from within can articulate what it means to study another tradition. Certainly, that was my initial reaction as I stood before Sri Mahalakshmi, wondering whether or not I had “wasted” 12 years of my life. Deep down, however, I knew then, as I have come to understand more fully now, that my work was not wasted; it just needed a new perspective. Subsequent visits to Sri Mahalakshmi’s temple and numerous conversations with her devotees have provided me with opportunities to develop an empathetic understanding of the experience of darshan. And through this experience I have come to appreciate the richness of my own Lutheran tradition and how it shaped my encounter with God.
In my experiences both as a student and as a teacher of the religious traditions of South Asia, I have often had people ask me whether or not I have become a Hindu. While I am usually surprised by the question, it nevertheless is an important one to ask. Underlying this question are many assumptions about what it means to be a religious person and what it means to study a religious tradition that is not your own. From a Christian – or, perhaps more broadly, a Western – perspective, this is really a question about conversion: a rejection of one religious system in favor of another. The monotheistic perspective cannot – or will not – allow for acknowledgement and worship more than one deity. From a Hindu perspective, on the other hand, such a question probably would never arise, for one does not give up, or reject one deity for the sake of another, but adds to the group of deities worthy of worship. In a world populated by 33 million gods, the Christian insistence on a single deity at the center of an individual’s life sounds awfully thin. Indeed, Hindus will often ask Christian whether or not the Christian God isn’t lonely, being all alone. What I have learned form my experiences at Sri Mahalakshmi’s temple is that conversion is not the only option for engaging and understanding other religious traditions. While I will never become a devotee of Sri Mahalakshmi’s temple, I can nevertheless appreciate her beauty and see the great lover that her devotees express toward her. Through that discovery, my own self-understanding as a religious person has been enriched.