Category Archives: spirituality

simple religion

The more time I spend in Kerala, the more different it seems from the north of India.   The people look different, the food is different, even the clothes are different.   And most striking to me, is how religion in the South, particularly in Kerala, is unlike much of the rest of the India.

For starters.  Kerala seems to have managed to find a way for its various religious adherents to co-exist peacefully.  One of the big roundabouts in Trivandrum has a massive cathedral, impressive mosque, and humble temple all within spitting distance of each other.  No one has to sneak in, no guards are visible, and traffic bustles along as if this were some every day scene.

But in India, and much of the world, this isn’t ordinary.   Religious and ethnic groups the world over collect in their little groups, and tend not to mix so overtly.  Not so in Kerala, where “syncretism” seems to the catchword.

The theyyam is a great example – it seems to pre-date established Hinduism, reaching back to some murky roots of animism and shamanism.  But it’s managed to incorporate Hindu deities (many of whom I’ve never heard of before).  Granted, Hinduism is a religion that easily lends itself to consilience – explanations of the divine tend to revolve around so-and-so being an incarnation of Shiva/Vishnu/Parvati.

More interestingly,  theyyam also includes some popular Muslim figures, many of whom who have been deified themselves.  Not something you see everyday.   And then there are the various warriors, wronged women, ghosts, etc, incorporating an astonishing complexity of social justice as well.  Af ter all, unlike the rest of Hindu rituals, the theyyam is dominated by lower-caste families, and not Brahmins.

But there is more.  The Sabrimala temple plays host to a massive pilgrimmage every year to honor Ayappas, a god not mentioned in any Vedic texts, but revered by Malayali Hindus all the same (some stories of course claim him as an incarnation of Vishnu).

Kerala has its history of religious violence, but always perpetrated from the outside.  The Christians trace their history back to St Thomas, who visited India after Jesus’s death (which means Christianity came to India before Europe).  In the 4th Century, they aligned themselves with the Syrian church.  When the Portuguese came centuries later, they brought Roman Catholicism in all its violence with them, converting by the sword, so to speak.  Eventually religious fervor calmed, and today both Catholics and Syrian Christians worship peacefully.

Islam has a strong presence in Kerala as well, with strong ties to the Middle East.  There are madrassas here, and also Dubai’s own religion – capitalism (which melds seamlessly with communism here).  Kerala is the would-be poster child for utopia.

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darshan

Kannur was an idyllic 3 days. after which I headed back down to Trivandrum.  There, some family friends picked me up and brought me to their house, where I dozed a bit before hopping a bus to Kanyakumari, at the very southern tip of India.  Kanyakumari is in Tamil Nadu, and it is located at the confluence of 3 seas.  Inevitably, the sunset/sunrise is gorgeous, and I managed a fabulous picture of the former. Kanyakumari is the sight where Gandhi’s ashes were set adrift in the ocean, and where Swami Vivekananda meditated on the social justice aspects of Hinduism.  Both events are commemorated by excellent memorials.

Then I hopped an overnight train to Rameshwaram, which I shared with about 10 other people, all elderly.  It was nice to be in A/C and have the compartment to myself.  At the very early hour of 5:20 am, we arrived, and I departed and wandered my way through the dark to the main temple of Ramanathaswamy.

There are 4 main temples in India that form the Char Dham, sites of pilgrimmage undertaken by all Hindus in their lifetime.  Two of them I’ve seen – Dwarka in the west and Badrinath in the north.   This third one is in the south, and I decided, since I was in the area, that I would go visit.

So, before sunrise I showed up, and made my way to the water to take a quick dip (or rather, dip my toes).  Then I dried off to some extent, and made my way into the temple.

The temple is enormous.  I walked the corridors for quite some time (coming across an elephant in a pen at one point), stopping for darshan at various points.  Then I meandered my way to the center (after considerable wandering and getting a bit lost) for a brief puja, and then made my way out again.  Then I hired a rickshaw driver to take me to the end of the island, where I could just barely make out Sri Lanka in the distance.

At Rameshwaram, it is said that Rama took his steps toward Lanka to free Sita from the demon Ravana.  It is also said that Ravana’s brother surrendered here, and offered penance.   After defeating Ravana, Rama offered penance for his sin of killing a Brahmin.

After leaving the temple, I made my way to the bus stand, to take the bus to Madurai.  Just as a note, always ask about where the bus stops…. in my case, it took almost 5 hours to arrive as we kept stopping everywhere…..

Madurai is the home of the Sri Meenakshi Temple – a blinding display of S Indian architecture.  Also huge.  Tonight, I take the train back to Trivandrum, and find some way to Periyar…..

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divine mysteries

I left Kochi a little sad, as my friend had departed the day before for her yoga teacher training in Goa.  I was on my way to Kannur, a town in the northern part of Kerala, where tourism is growing, but hasn’t yet reached the proportions it has further south.

But Kannur definitely has its reputation, and I certainly saw tourists.  But the beach was empty for the most part, and even the big draw in town was blissfully free of foreigners.

Kannur is known for its annual theyyam festival, which runs for almost half the year.   Theyyam is a Malayalam word that is supposedly derived from daivam, meaning god.  During theyyam, a performer, one who has trained all his life, induces a trance and takes on the persona of a deity.

Not just any deity – the theyyam ritual is specific.  Only certain people within certain families can perform it, and even then, they invoke only specific gods at specific temples at specific times of the year.

The performer dances, often with props such as swords, fire, staves, etc, and in his rthymic motion, induces the trance.  When he glimpses himself in the mirror, he no longer sees himself, but his god or goddess.  The change is measurable – even the casual onlooker can sense the presence of a different persona.

The ritual is not unlike spiritual possession found in so many cultures, and is itself a syncretic mix of Hinduism, animism, and even some Islam.  The gods are not strict to the Hindu pantheon, but can also be warriors, unfairly accused girls, and deities from other religions.  But whoever the god is, he or she is an integral part of the family who performs that theyyam every year.

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where everyone hugs instead of tugs

There are a lot of gurus in India.  Some of them are probably charletans, out to get your money and good intentions.  Some of them are genuine, but maybe mediocre.  And some of them attract such an immense following that the sheer energy of the group is overwhelming and maybe something exceptional.

Amma, Mata Amritanandamayi, is one of those.  At face value, there’s not really anything extraordinary here.  Maybe she’s performed a miracle (who hasn’t?).  Maybe her story bears a remarkable similarity to Krishna’s and St Theresa’s (not surprising given Kerala’s religious makeup).   Maybe she’s a genuinely nice and compassionate person.

But she displays no amazing phenomena.  Really, she’s just really touchy-feely.   Her gig is hugging, and hugging she does – hours and hours and hours on end.  Once, for 27 straight hours.

But in this seemingly mundane, ordinary act, maybe there is a glimpse of the Divine Presence.   Maybe the universe, in its infinite grace, pauses a moment in this human body to convey compassion to its multitudes of lost souls.  Maybe so much Love can build up in one person that the only way to release this energy is in the simple joy of touching another human being and acknowledging, “we are in this together, you and I.”

I am not a mystic.  But Amma’s ashram in Amritapuri holds a kind of magic, where a Benetton ad in white sits in lawn chairs and watches her hug person after person for hours and hours.  Amma’s darshan is this touch, and watching it is like receiving a blessing.

Of course, receiving a hug itself is a special kind of blessing.  I can’t say my life was changed in any way, but I was not annoyed at waiting nearly 10 hours for a few seconds in Amma’s embrace.  Whether or not she can really cure your ills, or offer you peace, or heal the world is probably forever up for debate.  But that one person exists who devotes her life selflessly for others is enough evidence of divinity for me.

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