This article was originally published in the February 2007 issue of Moment.
India, with 16 official languages and a population of more than a billion people (80 percent Hindu and 13 percent Muslim), is home to the second largest Muslim community in the world. India gallops forward at an eight percent GNP growth per year, but statistics alone cannot capture this booming, contentious democracy that bombards the senses and challenges old certainties.
After a week visiting Hindu temples and Mogul palace fortresses in Rajasthan, the State of the Princes, my husband and I arrived at Varanasi, the spirit-soaked city on the Ganges. Along teeming roads our driver wove between wandering cows, loaded camels gazing down imperiously, ox-drawn wooden-wheeled carts, bicycle rickshaws piled so high with brush that their straining drivers all but disappeared, hundreds of rainbow-tasseled vividly painted trucks carrying India’s commerce night and day and motorbikes driven by fathers clutching a child with two more squeezed between him and his wife. And on the edges of the frenetically flowing center, the slow human stream of daily life—eating, bathing, trading; children walking in neat school uniforms among the raggedness of barefoot others.
Pre-dawn mist hid the rising sun as we floated along the Ganges shore, past the ghats—stairways to the water’s edge where people purified themselves in the chill air, some swimming out among the crude wooden rowboats bearing tourists. We disembarked at a cremation ghat. Piles of stacked branches awaited the arrival of a corpse and the family who would scatter its ashes in the holy river that offers Hindus liberation from the endless cycle of death and rebirth. This was India at its most mysterious, driven by impulses that have long become tamed and suppressed in our world.
Our final destination of the morning was a temple unlike any we had previously visited. As at all Hindu temples, we entered barefoot. But once inside there was no brass bell ringing, no god image, no incense or offerings of golden marigolds, no priest performing the puja prayer ceremony before the god. The interior floor, about 30 feet square and surrounded by a higher viewing walk, bore a marble topographic map of the Indian subcontinent, from the Tibetan plateau and the Himalayas to the southernmost tip. Without political boundaries, it depicted the mountains, plains, oceans and major river—India before partition, India of the British Raj, “Mother India,” as the temple was called. Its only images were portraits of Mahatma Gandhi, who dedicated the temple in 1936, and the map’s donor, whose intent was to honor those who gave their lives in the struggle that only 11 years later would free India from British rule.
It was a fitting reminder of India’s vastness and turbulent history, of the price paid for independence in 1947 when Pakistan was split off as a separate Muslim state from secular India and millions of Muslims and Hindus moved in both directions, running from and perpetrating terrifying massacres. The portrait of Gandhi recalled the extraordinary power of this small spectacled man wearing sandals and a homespun dhoti whose intent to fast to death had halted Indian violence. Gandhi led Indians of all castes—a system he rejected—to non-violent civil disobedience against the British, a legacy that today still inspires Indian grassroots efforts toward social and political goals.
I saw all this as a Jew, now an Israeli living in another holy city where Jews, Muslims and Christians follow their different paths to God. I thought about the abundance and confusion of Hindu gods—Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu, Ganesh the elephant, Hanuman the monkey. Immersed as we were in India, Hindu worship of many manifestations of the Supreme Spirit seemed not so distinct from the worship of one God. I recalled the abundant images of Astarte found in Israeli excavations and the Biblical admonitions against idol worship that presuppose an impulse to seek blessings from more than one form of God. Expecting to experience alienation, I felt instead the underlying human need in a life that defies understanding—to turn to a higher power and to find comfort in timeless rituals.
I began to find a way to think about India’s magnetism for Israeli youth—as many as 40,000 at a time—who spend months there. Even these largely secular, post-army boys and girls m ay discover unexpected needs in the spiritually permissive Hindu environment of India, where observance is by personal choice, where religions m ingle and celebrations are often shared. When Israeli youth return home, it is not surprising that some begin to seek their own Judaism outside the dichotomies of secular and Orthodox that they have been offered, becoming more open to the realm of spirit that is within all of us. Perhaps that awareness is one of India’s lasting gifts.
Top photo: Temple in Southern Varanasi. Credit Wikimedia Commons.