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Wednesday, 29 December 2010

A Day in the Life: Faith and Suffering in South India - Page 2

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Is it lunchtime already? We eat at a posh hotel, a symbol of the new India, complete with a gym and rooftop swimming pool. From the fifth-story window of the hotel restaurant, we can see the tops of palm trees swaying amidst cell phone towers with the jagged cliffs of the Western Ghats rising in the haze beyond. We have Chinese food for lunch, or rather India’s peculiar take on Chinese food, which is heavy on chili and often submerged in a Indian influenced heavy sauce.


Our next stop: the site of the martyrdom of Devasahayam who is now in the long queue of holy men and women awaiting beatification. “See,” says Father Solomon triumphantly, “It’s not just India that has long lines.” As we approach the site, the road gets narrower and bumpier and village life encircles us. Just before the site, we emerge into an open field. The air is thick with dust from huge bales of hay that are being sorted and tied together. The car slows to a crawl, and we see a graceful old sari-clad woman with perfect posture balancing a huge bale of hay on her head. She pays us no attention.


At the site, I gaze at the statues and crosses and read about the man who was executed two centuries ago because he converted to Christianity and started proselytizing. Originally a high-caste Hindu, Devasahayam flouted the conventions of caste by associating with the “impure” elements of society, just as Jesus had eaten with prostitutes and tax collectors. He quickly incurred the wrath of a ruling class worried that the Christian message of radical equality would lead to unrest in an already unstable kingdom. It’s an ugly moment in Indian history that has unfortunate resonances today. Recently, dozens of Christians were murdered in a riot, the killers stirred to a frenzy by members of a right-wing fundamentalist Hindu movement called Hindutva. Proclaiming that India is a Hindu state, Hindutva activists are incensed by the supposedly underhanded methods of Christian missionaries. India is home to many cultures and religions, and – as a rule – they live together comfortably, borrowing traditions from one another with admirable ease, but the exceptions to the rule are chilling.


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After many detours and much food, we arrive at our destination! We happily spill out of the crowded car and… into a long line. Father Solomon has delivered us to the departure point for a ferry that shuttles tourists to the Vivekananda memorial, which sits on a rocky island a few hundred meters offshore. Swami Vivekananda’s Hinduism stands in stark contrast to the intolerant, violent faith of the Hindutva movement. He is known for his credo Sarva Dharma Sambhava: all religions are worthy of equal respect. In 1892, he swam to the rock on which his memorial now stands, meditated, then embarked on a worldwide tour, trying to bring his open, universalist Hinduism to the West. He was the first guru to gain a widespread following in the West, starting a tradition that reached its heyday with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and the Beatles and that continues to this day – in a more commercial vein – with Deepak Chopra and his ilk. Arguably, the quality and religious sincerity of the exported gurus has declined with time; Nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen sees Maharishi Mahesh Yogi as a self-promoting opportunist. He notes with glee John Lennon’s caustic remark to the Maharishi when he had asked why the Beatles were leaving him: “You are the cosmic one; you ought to know.”


Despite the length and density of the line for the ferry, it moves fairly quickly. Once on the island, we take off our shoes – a must for religious sites in India – and join the throng of tourists already on the island. The main temple on the island, which houses a statue of Vivekananda, is built to reflect architectural styles from all over India. Beneath its main hall is a meditation room. Although silence is supposed to be maintained in all parts of the temple, the meditation room is the only place where this dictum is actually obeyed and there is something about the room that demands silence. An aura of calm and respect pervades. Towards the back is a bench, in front of which is a large mat. The old or the inflexible sit on the bench while others sit on the mat. In the very front of the room is a large, softly lit “om” sign and small speakers broadcast a continual chanting of “om” in an ethereal voice. The room is dark, and the sign glows an otherworldly green. While I find the sign slightly bizarre, I’m amazed how at peace I feel while sitting amongst the meditators.


After an indeterminate amount of time, I return to the world of camera phones and hawkers. Joining the others, I gaze with them at the three seas and then at the little spit of land that constitutes the very southern tip of India. Bathers immerse themselves in the auspicious waters and, tempted by the joining of land and the seas, we decide to join them.


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(Page 2 of 4)
Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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