Cambridge, MA. I am back in Cambridge, after my more than ten weeks in South Asia (India, Sri Lanka, Nepal), and will spend the next days sifting through piles of mail, catching up on things I postponed “until I am back,” and readjusting my sleep (9.5 times zones difference) and internal climate control (50 degrees difference in temperature). If you have found time to read any of the previous entries – one, two, three, four, five - you will know that every part of my trip occasioned a reconnection with friends and former students, made me many new friends, provided occasions to give some lectures and thus by conversation learn what is going on in South Asia today, and in a deep way that I can hardly explain, enabled me to recollect that “other part” of my soul and mind and heart so deeply indebted to Hinduism; going back to India is in some odd way – and though I could never blend into an Indian crowd – also going home. (Don't many of us have “homes away from home”?)
My last public event in Chennai was a lecture for the Alumni Association of the University of Madras Department of Vaishnavism, on the medieval theologian Pillai Lokacharya’s theology of “real presence” in the image (icon, murti, idol) in the temple: the archavatara. The students in the Department are mostly senior citizens, men and women who, having retired as India requires at age 58 or soon thereafter, have gone back to school to study their religion, which they could not practically have done early on, given the woeful lack of jobs teaching religion in India. The only request to me in advance had been that I not do a comparative study, but simply present something Srivaisnava to these Srivaisnavas. Since I had a portion of Lokacharya’s 14th century Shrivacanabhushanam (“Adornment of the Auspicious Words”) with me, having used it in both Chennai and Jaffna, I spoke on his explanation as to why it is that surrender to God (prapatti) has no restrictions or requirements – in terms of time and place, method, caste, results – except one, that surrender occur where the Lord is most fully present. This place is the temple, since while God is everywhere, it is in the inner sanctum of the temple that the divine presence is most fully, perfectly felt in this day and age, in the consecrated image. It is, Lokacharya says, like a lamp burning in a dark place, a refreshing pool of water left after the rains have passed, the clouds departed, the bulk of the rain disappeared into the ground. For the devout, this real presence is evident, easy, and conducive to prayer and spiritual relish. The inattentive, distracted, unbelieving may pass by the temple every day and pay no attention but, Lokacharya says, eventually even the hardest of hearts will soften, and those turned away will turn toward the Lord, right in those temples. Some day soon I will write a little essay on Archavatara in Srivaisnava Hinduism and the Real Presence in the Eucharist as a matter of Catholic theology and piety – and I did promise this to the audience. But for now my point is more simple, appreciating how this educated Hindu community invited me, the foreigner and Christian and Jesuit, to speak to them on so intimate a topic: study does help us to cross over, and what the Church calls “the expert dialogue of theologians” also has real life implications and power. While few Srivaisnavas, very few indeed, study Christianity in any substantive way, these were quite open to hearing my insights even if, truth be told, some in the audience could easily have outdone me in explication this difficult medieval text. But our exchange was real, on a sacred topic, and what more could I ask for a final event in my visit?
And so, what I would like to say in closing is this: If you get the chance, go to South Asia, India in particular, and observe firsthand the “mad mix” of life: traffic patterns so confusing that crossing the street, much less driving, can be quite daunting; myriad social interconnections; daunting divides of wealth and power and poverty; the very confusing politics of the world’s largest democracy; and religions that flourish and grow and change, despite India’s real secularization process. India, after all, contains the world’s largest population of Muslims (nearly 200,000,000); still very much welcomes (even if we must admit counter-instances where saddening religious violence erupts) Jews and Christians and Parsis with roots originally to the west; remains a home to the Buddhist and Jaina and Sikh communities that were born here over the millennia; and of course is home to nearly 900,000,000 Hindus — and is thus the only country on earth to contain so many people of a single religion. (My statistics are borrowed from The World’s Religions in Figuresby Todd M. Johnson and Brian J. Grim, Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).
As PJ Johnston’s comment on my previous Kathmandu blog indicates, visiting India or Nepal is by no means a uniform experience, and has its ups and downs. So too, PJ rightly observes that none of this is simple, the boundaries among religions are murky. What it means to be “a Hindu” is hotly debated today, and it should not be surprising that in Nepal there never were neat separations of Hindu and Buddhist from one another. Distinguishing religions has real value, but such distinctions are not necessarily the older or only option. But however we chart the numbers and make the distinctions, there will be so much to learn from South Asia’s cultures and religions. A trip there will be a real change of pace and do you good, mind and soul and body.
If you cannot go to India – too far, to time-consuming, too expensive – study up on the topic, look into India’s history and read something of its religions. Browse India and Hinduism when next in a book store, or start reading The Hindu or Frontline or right here in the USA, India Abroad - even just to keep up on the astounding mix of cultures, languages, politics and religions that combine to set the scene for this April’s national elections. Or if you live near any of the hundreds of Hindu temples in the USA, or Sikh gurdwaras or mosques and churches of South Asian origin – check out the possibilities, geographically and by religion, at Harvard’s Pluralism Project – go out of your way to visit one of these places, and visit more than once. Or get in the habit of visiting the Indian art section in your local museum. Or go to an Indian restaurant and try the masala dosai. Get the taste. Get used to thinking about India and its many religions, especially Hinduism, the great religion probably least prominent, most missing, in the American consciousness, and yet one that has so much to teach us, Catholics in particular, in the century to come.