Tag Archives: Hinduism

Diverse Colors

After a warm snap, we’re not at peak color here in New Jersey. Some trees have changed, yes, and leaves have begun to fall, but green prevails. While on a walk with my wife—a luxury only available on weekends with my commuting schedule—I spotted a bit of red amid the leaves on a local stream. Litter, and not just the leaf kind, is a bit of a problem in Jersey, but this splotch of red seemed intentional. It was taller than it was wide. It was standing in the middle of a shallow brook. Its placement looked intentional. What couldn’t be discerned from the bank is just what this was. It might be a Buddha. It might be Ganesh. It does seem, no matter how it’s reasoned out, to be religious.

Archaeologists often find objects with no known utility. If an artifact has no practical function such an object is generally deemed religious. For much of human history, before the madness of capitalism, people owned only the necessities. Life was hard and lifespans were short. Accumulating stuff as an end in itself was a luxury only for kings and priests and the relatively few merchants in urban settings. An object found from that time, then, with no known function, must somehow be religious. An object of cultic devotion. Those of us trained in the history of religions would sometimes laugh at this predisposition. Religion is the basket for anything that can’t be otherwise explained. So it seemed with this red statue—it was clearly human-made—standing in the stream. We were walking by a ritual site, perhaps. Maybe it was just a joke.

Then I recalled Ganesh Chaturthi, the ritual submersion of Lord Ganesh that transpired in late August this year. It is a numinously charged season, this descent into autumn. My Jewish friends have just celebrated a new year. Pagans made proper observation of the equinox. Preparations, at least of the commercial kind, are well underway for Halloween. They are all colors. Although spring’s first buds are welcome after a monochromatic winter, soon we transition into the green of summer. We miss the benefits of many colors. At moments like this on the banks of a brook with yellow and brown highlighting the green that remains on the trees, I’m again reminded how wonderful diversity truly is. I am in the presence of a god. It may not be my deity, but I’m not threatened by the difference. Nature is a patient master for those willing to attend to the lessons.

Excarnation

To those raised in the Christian tradition incarnation is a familiar concept. The idea, more complex than it sounds, is that God becomes human. In a world of DNA and general disbelief in anything non-physical, it boggles the mind how disincarnate “matter” (for lack of a better word) might bond with the double-helix in order to create something new. Since science can’t explain such things spiritual, believers have long hung the cloak of mystery here and passed on to more practical matters. But what about excarnation? It’s actually not the opposite of theological incarnation, but it does involve spiritual practice. A friend sent me an article on Vintage News (much better than fake news, in my humble opinion) titled “The Towers of Silence: Ancient reminders of an eerie Zoroastrian burial ritual.” This was a nice find because I’ve been reading about the Zoroastrians again recently, and if ever there’s been a case of an important religion going underground, their’s is it.

I don’t mean to sound patronizing about it, but Zoroastrianism has been one influential religion. Having roots in the world between Vedic and Semitic religions, it had an impact on both. In my teaching days when I covered Zoroastrianism my Hindu students remarked on how similar the concepts were to their tradition. More reluctant were those of the Judeo-Christo-Islamic side to see that key concepts such as Heaven, Hell, the Devil, and Armageddon have their ultimate roots in the dualism that Zoroastrianism put on offer. Thus spake Zarathustra. We know very little about this founder of the religion. We do know that he set out to create a “systematic theology” that explained the world he saw. The result has changed the world many times over.

Those of you drawn in by catchy titles may be wondering what excarnation has to do with it. Believing dead bodies to be inherently corrupt, burial wasn’t the best Zoroastrian option since it only polluted the ground. The response was the ultimate in up-cycling—expose dead bodies until the vultures eat all the polluting flesh and then handle the dry bones afterward. This practice is arguably the most natural way of disposing of human remains, but it’s distasteful to many people. Who wants to be eaten? Unless, of course, you’re a believer in incarnation. For in that tradition God incarnate told his followers to eat his body and drink his blood. The more squeamish have done what religions have always excelled at—they turned earthy reality into a metaphor. Even vultures have to eat.

Image credit: John Gould, HC Richter, Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: John Gould, HC Richter, Wikimedia Commons

Game of Thrones

IMG_2763I risk my already flagging street cred by admitting this, but I don’t watch Game of Thrones. In fact, I started to read the first book a couple years back and I just couldn’t get into it. Well, only 80 pages into it. The fault is, I’m entirely sure, my own. I lack some gene or enzyme that makes life without Game of Thrones impossible. Still, I have to admit curiosity. A story on the Washington Post, by Ishaan Tharoor, suggests “The ancient Persian god that may be at the heart of ‘Game of Thrones’” is Angra Mainyu, aka Ahriman. This managed to catch my attention. Zoroastrianism is a religion that seems to lie behind quite a bit of modern religious thought. Although dating Zarathustra, or Zoroaster, is notoriously difficult, concepts from his religious system show up in Hinduism—one of the earliest forms of religious expression about which we know a fair deal—as well as in Judaism and therefore Christianity and Islam. In fact, many of the ideas you may associate with the central tenets of Judeo-Christo-Islamic tradition may go back to Zarathustra.

One of the certainties about Zoroastrianism is that it was a dualistic religion. Good and evil are engaged in a constant struggle for control. The good god, Ahura Mazda (which sounds like a blend between Star Trek and a Japanese auto maker) struggles constantly against Angra Mainyu. Mazda’s website states that the car line is named after the deity (according to Wikipedia, I note, losing the last vestige of cred), pushing his reach even further east. With this incredible pedigree, it is no wonder that George R. R. Martin may have tapped into it. This kind of dualism is ripe for the picking.

My friend K. Marvin Bruce wrote a satire about the Persian gods, in fictional form, that was published a couple years back in Calliope, a small circulation literary journal. He told me he even won third place in a contest for it. The idea was that a disgruntled professor wanted to start the apocalypse (a Zoroastrian idea) by summoning Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu to earth to try to start a fight between the two. It was a fun story, but the point, if I may speak for my friend, is serious. Warring religions stand the best chance of beginning the end of times. We don’t even need the gods to do it, really. Although I don’t watch Game of Thrones, I can’t help wonder if Martin had the same idea in mind. If you want the answer to that, don’t ask me. I’m not even a hundred pages into it, and I don’t have triple play.

Brains and Selves

TellTaleBrainThe Tell-Tale Brain is an ambitious, yet humble attempt to find the self. V. S. Ramachandran is a neuroscientist with considerable psychology experience who is well equipped to take on, as the subtitle puts it, A Neuroscientist ‘s Quest for What Makes Us Human. The book will take you to some very strange places. And although he’s a scientist, Ramachandran keeps an admirably open mind. Right at the start he notes that he sees no reason for using “merely”s and “only”s when discussing brains and their realities. In fact, he knows that scientists aren’t qualified to answer the question of whether there is a god. Having grown up Hindu, he used to pray to many gods. A true scientist has no need to belittle beliefs. Belief, as Ramachandran demonstrates, is far more complex than most pundits would suggest. This is based on his close study of the brain and those to whom it has been less than kind.

Already in the first several pages it becomes clear that Ramachandran finds religion a useful trope. It illustrates something we all know. That doesn’t mean he (or you) has (have) to accept it, but we all recognize it. Studying how the brain works, in this book, means looking at patients with various disorders, most of which have tongue-twisting names, that are inherently fascinating. Phantom limbs, people who see the colors of numbers or feel the emotions of fabrics, or who can’t recognize their own mothers—all of these things really happen in the brains of intelligent people. For them these are reality. For Ramachandran, they can frequently be chased down to a neurological cause. And sometimes people even really think they’re God. One of the treasures of this book is to experience the non-normativity of western culture. The use of Indian art and religion as illustrations of what humans believe is refreshing.

Anyone who fears the loss of self take warning; we may not be who we think we are. Brain studies show that, in certain circumstances, brains can contain more than one self. Memories can be fabricated and the continuity that we call our life stories may well contain a healthy dose of fiction. Experiments on brains can change who we think we are. Descartes would, perhaps, go insane. Ramachandran doesn’t claim to have figured out the self, or consciousness. He may have ruled out some options, though. At the end of the book, however, he reintroduces the concept with which he started: science and religion. Quoting Darwin he shows that the main mind behind evolutionary theory refused to make an absolute declaration about the divine. Humility, it seems, may be just as effective in making converts as a Bible in hand. And to figure that out will take some brain power.

Martian Ethics

MartianIf you need a boot of optimism, look to Mars. Or, more specifically, read Andy Weir’s The Martian. Not that it’s the greatest literature ever produced, but it is a story brimming with humanity. Mark Watney is accidentally stranded on Mars. His crew-mates, in the midst of their multi-month-long return journey, adjust their course to go back for him. Naturally, nothing goes as planned. Although much of the story is far beyond the believability scale, Weir has the technical background to make it all sound plausible. As an engineer, Watney fixes most problems with an optimism that would leave many humanities specialists weeping in the dust. Time after time a potentially fatal situation develops that is solved by technological ingenuity. Relying on his will to survive, and good humor, the protagonist makes a remarkable journey across the surface of the Red Planet to a potential means of escape. I shouldn’t throw too many spoilers into this post since the book is fairly new. I will say it left me feeling good about being human.

Part of being human is thinking about larger issues. Often, throughout the book, Watney wonders about belief in God. Not enough to make it a main theme, but enough to merit mention on this blog. In a somewhat humorous moment, one of the mission controllers says that he’s Hindu, so he believes in lots of gods. In contrast, Watney, alone on Mars, has a vastly different perspective. Without divine intervention, or even any aliens, he finds a way to persevere when the Fates (or the author) have stacked the odds against him. Mark Watney believes in himself, and he believes in human goodness.

The decision of his crew-mates to return for him is one of potential self-sacrifice. There are no guarantees that they’ll survive. Nevertheless, there’s no second thoughts. When they learn Watney is alive, they decide to go back, no matter what might happen to them. The story awoke a strange optimism in me. Although people are capable of horrendous acts against each other and the planet, I do believe that we are basically good. The bad ones make it into the news. We could all be better, I’m guessing. Still, we will help others when we can, even if all we get from it is the good feeling that we’ve done the right thing. Unfortunately, the only people, it seems, that don’t have the best interests of others at heart are our politicians. Watching the posturing before the primaries I do have to wonder if one wouldn’t stand a better chance abandoned on Mars than in the land of the free. This may be one of the times, it seems, that trusting in human goodness might well be equated to a prayer.

Life as we Know it

Dying2BMeA friend asked me for a book. Since my life has mostly been about books, I’m generally happy to supply what I can. This friend is a cancer survivor and wanted to read Anita Moorjani’s Dying To Be Me. The last time I saw this friend, she handed me the book, saying she didn’t care for it. Although the author tells of her dramatic Near Death Experience, and is very optimistic about all that we can improve by loving ourselves and others, she isn’t a Christian. Raised as an Indian living in Hong Kong and sometimes attending a Catholic school, Moorjani is conversant with several religions but doesn’t favor one above the others. Her experience of being in a coma with very advanced cancer and having a prognosis of days, at most, to live, yet coming out of the coma and being completely healed of disease within weeks could be overlooked on the basis of a belief system. I decided to read her account myself.

Ironically, Moorjani directly describes why she can’t accept any single religion in her book. Her reason is because religions tend to block being open to possibilities that fall outside of doctrine. Her Near Death Experience, described in great detail, doesn’t fit any particular religion very well, including her native Hinduism. It led her to believe in a kind of universalism with everyone ending up realizing their own divinity and loving all others unconditionally. Even though many of her interpretations of her experience are a bit too New Agey for me, I have a deep appreciation for her advocacy of trying to understand others and loving everyone. I saw nothing incompatible with Christianity there. Or any other ethical religion.

Religion can divide as much as, if not more than, plain common sense. Those who think deeply about it realize that religion should make life better for all. That seems to be its evolutionary purpose, apart from personal survival. Of course, some religions also reject evolution as well. When missionaries reached far shores and found good people living ethical lives, they feared for their souls, thinking only one religion could fit all. Many of us are heirs of such missionaries, being taught from our youngest days that living in fear and self-abasement is the loving, Christian way. It may be that a Hindu who learned to trust herself by nearly crossing the brink of death has something to teach the missionaries as well. If only they could listen.

Holi Daze

It’s pretty white out there. For many parts of the eastern United States it has been a season of snow on snow on snow (why does that sound familiar?). The wisdom back in old white Wisconsin was there’d be three snows on the crocuses. This year the crocuses have remained buried, even in New Jersey. Judging from the number of people not driving, it looks like most people had a snow day yesterday. The color white has often been treated as a symbol of purity in various religions, but today is also the celebration of Holi, a Hindu festival of color. I’m no expert on Hinduism, but I do find the concept of a day of color to be immensely appealing. Anthropologists trace its roots to some fertility festival, but the fact is, we could all use some color right about now.

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Winter technically lasts, in this hemisphere, until the vernal equinox. Religions around the world have festivals to celebrate this slow turning of the seasons, and the lengthening of days. A long while back I wrote a little book on the holidays. In it I tried to find the basis for various holiday colors. We all know red and green clash, but when we see them together we think of Christmas. Black and orange make a standard Halloween combination, and red by it self suggests St. Valentine, while green alone gives St. Patrick his identity. A more recent addition is black and silver for New Year. Easter, coming in the spring, however, is a celebration of color. We don’t dye the eggs just one hue—it has been a long winter and we celebrate its close with a burst of color. Even the staid old Episcopal Church reverences the liturgical seasons with distinct colors. In other words, colors mean something.

Years ago a friend recommended Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey (this was before Fifty Shades of Grey took over the world). It quickly became one of my favorite novels. It’s all about color. Apart from a few years under the influence of a friend with a strong personality, I’ve always been a subdued haberdasher. I tend to wear understated colors because I don’t like people commenting on the way I look, or, even for that matter, looking at me. I enjoy public speaking, but having someone single me out on the street or the bus has always felt distinctly uncomfortable. Still, I think we may have lost something that Holi has retained. Color exists to be celebrated. And shared. It is so important that commerce and trade apparently stopped last week to figure out the color of a certain dress. I may not be a Hindu, but I think I might wear my brightest shirt today to welcome color back to the world.