So many gods, so little time. August 29, 2010Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
Tags: Catholicism, Hinduism, religion
Silence Dogood here. This past week, I went up to the Poconos to visit my friend Huma before she returns to Doha to teach for the coming year. We’d turned out of our way to go to the Sorrenti/Cherry Valley winery in Saylorsburg, since Huma and our friend Ben and I are all fond of their wines—try their Marechal Foch and Proprietor’s Red if you’re ever in the area—and I thought I’d get a couple of bottles to bring back to Hawk’s Haven.
But as we headed down to the winery, I saw an amazing sight: There, on that wooded backroad, was what had to be a Hindu temple. It was pure white and cone-shaped, festooned with a froth of ornamentation, all in white. It looked like an especially ornate wedding cake, or perhaps a Baroque Papal miter. Seeing it there in what appeared to be a pleasant apartment complex fairly took my breath away. “Look! Look!” I screamed at poor Huma, who was, after all, trying to navigate the narrow, winding road.
“That has to be an ashram,” she said.
“What do you mean, ashram? Isn’t it an apartment complex? Look at all those buildings!”
“It’s an ashram. We can stop by on the way back from the winery and check it out if you don’t believe me.”
Well, God alone knows what I thought an ashram was supposed to look like. Maybe an elaborate temple itself, or a series of primitive straw huts or something. Certainly not that attractive, peaceful, tidy series of buildings tucked quietly among the trees. We stopped by after picking up the wine, and got rather sheepishly out of the car. (At least, I was feeling sheepish. What were we doing here? How would the members of this Hindu ashram react to a Muslim and Catholic wandering around their grounds? Were we intruding?) Fortunately, we soon encountered some of the residents, who encouraged us to visit the bookstore and go inside the temple.
Huma shares my bookstore mania, so we went to the bookstore first. She stocked up on Indian literary works while I checked out the extensive selection of Indian vegetarian cookbooks (including a wonderful assortment of regional cookbooks), then moved on to the religion section. But all good things must come to an end, and eventually we staggered back to the car with armloads of books. Now it was time for the temple.
Entering barefoot and as quietly as possible, we beheld the shrine, with a large central deity surrounded by smaller deities. The shrine was housed in the wedding-cake portion of the temple, with a larger room opening out behind it for the faithful to gather to venerate the gods in the shrine, to participate in worship services, and to listen to the ashram’s founder and other spiritual leaders speak. After taking it all in and watching the prostrations of the devout before the shrine, we crept out again as quietly as we could.
All this prostration and such might have freaked out a Protestant or Jew, but as a Catholic, it didn’t faze me. Catholicism has its fair share of shrines, and the faithful often approach them on their knees and prostrate themselves before the Holy of Holies. What was a bit disturbing was the proliferation of gods.
Mind you, Christians believe in the Holy Trinity, the three manifestations of the single Godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost/Spirit. And almost without exception, the religions of the ancient societies were polytheistic, from Greece and the gods of Mount Olympos to Ancient Egypt to the Maya and Aztecs of the New World. The novelty, the shocking thing, the exception was the insistence on a single god: Akhenaten’s religious revolution in Egypt, insisting that only the Sun God, Aten, was God; Abraham’s rejection of the endless gods of his day and embrace of the One God for his people; Muhammad’s insistence that there was no God but Allah.
But still, the proliferation of Hindu deities is a little overwhelming. With thousands of gods to choose from, how do you know where to turn? Yes, we Catholics have our many saints, but we don’t confuse them with God. We venerate, but don’t worship them. We view them as inspirations, as people who found their particular path to God, who blazed a trail we can choose to follow if it speaks to us. If God’s beautiful, delightful Creation speaks to you of God, as it does to me, you might follow the way of St. Francis. If you can open yourself to God in the measured and regular cadences of prayer, chant, and discipline, you might follow the way of St. Benedict. If you feel a vocation to assist the less fortunate because you see the face of God in every one of them, you might follow the way of Mother Teresa. And so on.
The Hindus also have their saints, their Holy Ones, who are venerated as such but not worshipped as gods. But what of their endless pantheon? I thought about this again yesterday, when OFB and I went to a local antiques store after making a dropoff at the nearby Goodwill. Browsing through the numerous booths, I stumbled on a poster for a Jimi Hendrix album that showed Jimi and his band enshrined among innumerable Hindu deities. Yow!!!
Seeing the poster, having just seen the ashram and its temple, and having thought about the Hindu gods in context with the intrinsic human impetus to worship something greater than ourselves, sparked an awareness in me for the first time: Perhaps Hinduism’s many gods serve the same purpose as Catholicism’s saints, leading each of us to God through our connection to that particular saint or manifestation. Thomas Merton or Padre Pio, Ganesha or Kali: Whatever it takes to get us there, it’s the getting there that matters.
‘Til next time,