Three weeks in India brought encounters with people whose lived faiths I’ve never experienced before. How does a Unitarian Universalist respond?


“Varanasi,” by Mary Oliver 

“I Said to the Wanting-Creature Inside Me,” by Kabir (click here to read the poem)


The poet’s eye focuses on the telling detail, elements of a scene that illustrate the larger truth that she finds in the moment. But to get the full picture, here’s what you need to add to Mary Oliver’s description of the scene of the shore of the holy Ganges at the ancient city of Varanasi, India:

First, you need to get down to the river, and that is no mean accomplishment. In this city of 3.5 million the clogged streets and winding alleys are dense with life. Bicycle rickshaws, squat, three-wheel tuk-tuks, motorcycles, subcompact cars, oxcarts, and delivery trucks nudge and beep at pedestrians, cows, and dogs packed together in a kind of lazy river of their own wending down to the water.

Women in bright saris walk purposively with eyes straight ahead, young men in western clothes gossip with the owners of vegetable stalls, older men in dusty kurtas sit along curbs, commenting on the scene. Women sit along the street median with complaining children holding out their hands for alms and teenage boys dog westerners, pleading that they buy their plastic keepsakes. Watch your feet, or your next step may find you in the middle of a cow pie or someone’s half-finished lunch.

Along the riverfront, the ghats, a series of concrete stairways, extend for several miles along the riverfront, often cracked, or broken and uplifted at crazy angles. Sitting under wicker umbrellas, Hindu priests chant an ongoing stream of blessings, tossing herbs into small fires in front of them, as people of mixed ages drop coins in their baskets. Boys sell small, banana-leaf cups, each filled with a votive candle and marigold blossoms, many of which are already burning along the riverfront.

At the water, dozens of people are in various states of undress. Young men stripped down to shorts jump in noisily and splash each other, while women edge into the water up to their waists in their saris. Some hold hands, shyly encouraging each other, while others stand quietly with eyes closed or softly unfocused before they dunk themselves again and again into the cool, grey water.

The scene is empty of organized ceremony. There appears to be no right way to approach the water. And no great fuss is made of this moment of communion. When finished, the bathers simply make their way gingerly back up the steps to a towel or some covering, carrying a small jug of river water, or smiling and chatting with friends or family.

It is, as Mary Oliver suggests, an affecting moment, and yet at the same time about a half-mile upstream a very different scene is taking place. Scattered across the steps are dozens of funeral pyres, each attended by silent mourners dressed in white looking on as tall fires crackled and blazed.

We had visited the spot the evening before, watching silently as every 10 minutes or so a priest would guide mourners carrying their dead wrapped in sheets on a bamboo bier to the river, where they dunked them before hoisting them to huge wooden pyres and lit the flame. When the fire was done, the chief mourner, head shaved and in bare feet, would tote the largest remaining bone on the end of a heavy stick and hurl it into the water.

What does it mean to be a person of faith? It’s a question that we’ll wrestle with this month, and it’s something that I found myself bumping up against time and again these last few weeks in a trip along the great river Ganges in India. It is a place where faith is interwoven into so much in ways that are often paradoxical and confusing. Three weeks of travel is hardly enough time to grab more than a passing impression, but I wanted to share with you a bit of the journey that Debbie and I experienced and some of the threads that surprisingly lead me back to our work here.

Hindus say the Ganges is no ordinary river: it is the embodiment of the goddess Ganga, Ganga-ji, dear Ganga, who once descended to Earth to purify the souls of humankind. On the shores of Varanasi, humans have worshipped Ganga the purifier for nearly 3,000 years, archaeological records go back many thousands more. So, is it any wonder that Hindus regard it as the holiest place on Earth, where special blessings are conferred on those who greet the day here, and where death along its banks is thought to bring moksha, freedom from the cycle of birth and death, union with the infinite being of God?

The faith that people bring to Ganga’s banks has its roots in sources that precede historical records, to the earliest days of the Hindu pantheon. This is, as Mary Oliver says, Shiva’s city, evidenced by the three horizontal stripes of pigment that you find on the foreheads of his followers, or the marigold leis placed at the altars of his shrines. But others are here, too: worshippers of Vishnu with the single, vertical red stripe on their foreheads, elephant-headed Ganeshas stuck on the dashboards of delivery truckers, or “Jai Maa Kali,” hail mother Kali, across the tops of the windshields of tuk-tuks.

In short, everywhere you look, from the roadside shrines to the bulls, those sacred reminders of Krishna, avatars of Shiva’s great mount Nandi, who lope lazily into traffic, you are reminded in one way or another of a spiritual dimension to our lives that our busy striving distracts us from seeing.

And that, Hindus will tell you, is what our Western senses miss when we remark on the chaos and sensory overload of India’s busy streets. It is the seemingly contradictory way of looking at the world holding that the possibility of our own awakening, our own happiness is in our hands, and yet warns against celebrating the ego.

It is not personal salvation that is our goal, they say, but union with all things – not raising up, but erasing the ego. And so each shrine, each image becomes a reminder of the work before each person to shed distractions and better our lives. And every being, every major event in our lives is a teacher for us all. What this means is that the Hindu pantheon, now thousands strong, is not just a historical legacy; it is alive and growing even today.

Our guide on this trip told us the story of one that emerged in his home town. It seems that years ago a young man had lusted over a particular motorcycle. He worked for years to get the money to buy it and finally did. But he had not been driving it for more than a week or two when he crashed into a tree and died. It was terribly sad, but afterward nobody in the family or anyone else in town had the heart to remove the crumpled machine under the tree. In time, people began bringing candles and chains of flowers, first to remember the boy and then as a way of sending blessings or hold loved ones from harm.

What will become of this shrine remains to be seen, but it illustrates a pattern that has been repeated time and again, how Hinduism over time has absorbed and reshaped many of the influences that have touched it.

This is true of religious movements that moved through and even the sub-continent’s conquerors. Buddhism, for example, was born in India in the 6th century BCE, though today less than 10% of Indians call themselves Buddhist. But honoring the fact Gautama Siddhartha likely walked Varanasi’s streets in his wandering, Hindus claim him as the 9th avatar of the god Vishnu. Today most of the foundational sites of Buddhism have been restored. And perhaps none is more notable than Bodh Gaya, where a massive successor of the bodhi tree where Buddha attained enlightenment grows near of the massive Mahabodhi temple. Visitors of all races stream through the grounds while pilgrims in saffron or scarlet robes singly or in groups do prostrations, chant pali scriptures, spin prayer wheels or simply meditate. Nearly every space is occupied by a worshipper of some kind.

We had perhaps our most amusing experience of Hindu repurposing at the famous Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata. The hall is a massive marble structure with architecture mirroring the Taj Mahal, even using the same marble. It’s known as the “Raj Taj.”

Outside stands an enormous sculpture of a seated Queen Victoria, soberly surveying the scene. We happened to arrive the weekend of Indian Independence Day and discovered that on that weekend the park’s grand walkways and lawns become a kind of teenage meet market. It was, we were told, a place where Indian taboos on the public display of affection were relaxed and girls in their best saris and boys in their cleanest shirts walked hand in hand, taking photos of each other in alluring poses. Prim Queen Victoria as the latest goddess of love? Well, who knows?

These temples serve as place to keep stories alive that resonate with the people. Temples of a sort include the home in Delhi where Mohandes Gandhi was assassinated. The room where he lived remains preserved with his simple possessions, and footprints imbedded in concrete mark the path to where he was shot. The location of the shooting itself is roofed and adorned with flowers.

But not infrequently we experienced the most incongruous juxtapositions of faith. In Kolkata, for example, we arrived the day of a special celebration of Saraswati, goddess of wisdom and the arts. Several blocks in town were dedicated to shops that made unfired clay sculptures of Saraswati ranging in size from a foot or so to seven feet.

Each was brightly painted with a sweet face, dyed hemp for hair and elaborate paper clothing. On the festival day, we watched neighborhood groups who ordered the sculptures carry them down to the Hooghly River, the name the Ganges takes near the Bay of Bengal. Then, circling seven times and chanting together they immersed the glorious sculpture in the river, where it melted into the fast flowing stream.

And then on a visit downstream we saw a temple dedicated to Ramakrishna, the Hindu leader whose lectures about the unity of all religion at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions introduced the West to Hinduism. Headquarters of the Vedanta movement, it is a monument to the elevated notion of the spiritual unity of all faiths, and still there at its center, was a ghat on the riverbank where worshippers bathed as Saraswati’s remains drifted by.

What this landscape dotted with temples served to remind me was that the spiritual dimension of life, that which guides us to see ineffable beauty wherever we look and challenges us find inherent value in all beings, in all things, remains close at hand.

One of the centers of Hindu theology is what is called sanatana dharma: the notion that there is an eternal path that connects all things, that holds all things in harmony. It affirms no creed, but instead stands for a code of conduct that we might simply call right living. It is centered in spiritual freedom, arguing that any pathway or religious teaching that has spiritual freedom at its center is part of it. Indeed, for some Hindus it is the essence of Hinduism, an ever-evolving way without beginning, without foundational prophets or teachers that is inherent in all things and inclusive of all things.

It’s here that I began to find some connections to our own very different community and to the notion of faith. Faith in our way of thinking is not so far removed from the sanatana dharma. We affirm that our lives are grounded in a center of meaning that is larger than us yet within us. We affirm that our faith is realized in how we engage the word, in an ethic of action, and we insist on spiritual freedom, providing room for us each to find our own path to an awakened state of spiritual maturity, trying in our own ways to make sense of the elephant of our heart’s calling.

Of course, from the Hindu perspective, the world today is far from an awakened state. Indeed, they say we are living in the age of Kali, the goddess of destruction. In the Kali Age, the last of four great ages, strife, corruption, darkness and disintegration prevail in the world.

Traveling across India, it’s not hard find confirmation of that assessment. Amid astonishing beauty and stunning human cultural achievement, there is also terrible pollution and deep deprivation. The crowded cities find a way to function but so much is crumbling or broken or mired in filth as to make one discouraged about their prospects.

The holy city of Varanasi is a good example. Home of one of the premier universities in the country and a center of the silk weaving trade, its sacred riverfront is much the worse for wear. And the human ashes that drift in upstream from where worshippers bathe are hardly the worst assault the Ganges receives. More troubling are the pipes that regularly direct untreated human sewage into the river. And yet, like the woman in Mary Oliver’s poem, they are still determined to find the holy in it.

Our guide told us that Hindus have some thoughts about enduring and even growing spiritually in the age of Kali. In this time, he said, people learn to live closer to the earth, to cultivate a sense of inner light in themselves and among others amid the darkness.

Using Kabir’s imagery, what are doing looking for another river to cross? Do we really believe there is some other place that will make the soul less thirsty? No. Let us give up such imaginary meanderings, accept ourselves and stand firm in that which we are.

And even in this place, wherever our wandering hearts take us, we may yet find the bliss of certainty and a life lived in accordance with that certainty.