Monday, April 13, 2009

Sitting (with) Shiva

Our next stop was Pashupatinath, the city’s most sacred Hindu site.  It is dedicated to Shiva.  It is impossible to understand its significance without some background on this important figure and some of the other local gods and goddesses.  So, let me offer a very brief primer on what I’ve learned about the Hindu pantheon.  There are thousands of deities, but the Big Three are Brahma, the Creator; Vishnu, the Preserver; and Shiva, who is both the Destroyer and the source of re-generation.  Other significant figures are Shiva’s son, Ganesh, the much beloved elephant-headed god, and the epic hero humans Rama and Krishna, both of whom are incarnations of Vishnu.

Like the Buddhists, Hindus make offerings to their gods and goddesses.  Unlike the Buddhists, for Hindus, these offerings include animal sacrifices.  While the Buddhist stupas contain thirteen steps, representing the thirteen lives it takes to achieve Nirvana, the Hindu temples contain lengthy ribbon-like symbolic ladders to heaven, with over one hundred rungs apiece.  Mangalal said that each rung represents one of the lives it takes for Hindus to reach Nirvana.  When I asked why the Hindu journey takes so much longer than its Buddhist counterpart, Mangalal replied, “Unlike the Buddhists, we sacrifice animals.  We know that this is bad karma, which must be resolved through many lives.  But what can we do?  Our gods demand blood.”

OK—now that you have the scene and the cast of characters, on with the story.  We wove our way through Pashupatinath, which is a major Hindu pilgrimage site, its significance akin to that of Mecca for Moslems.  Shiva is said to have appeared here incarnated as a deer.  His image is omnipresent, in stone carvings, woodwork, and statues.  Often he is portrayed with blue skin, for it is said that the sea was filled with poison until he drank it out and thereby saved the world.  Perhaps for this reason he is often garlanded with serpents. He was a great slayer of demons, who also accidentally beheaded his son, Ganesh, whom he then “healed” by grafting an elephant head to his body (interestingly, Ganesh went on to become the god of good luck!)  And his consort, Parvati—also known as Annapurna—is, by reputation, even fiercer than him.  All of this goes a long way toward explaining his tendency toward volatility.

But the main image of Shiva in Pashupatinath—and many other Nepali temples dedicated to him—is his penis.  There are hundreds of phalluses here, known as shiva lingas.  As I said earlier, some things are universal.  Boys will be boys, even (or especially) if they are feared and revered as gods of destruction and re-generation, kind of like rock musicians and NBA stars.  Oddly enough, for all those penises, it was pretty hard to find a men’s room at the temple.

Hindu holy sites are also full of graphic carvings of couples copulating in every imaginable position.  Mangalal called these images “Nepali sex education.”  I’ve read that the stained glass of medieval cathedrals was designed to teach the stories of the Bible to the illiterate masses.  I guess Hindus also used art to educate.  One can only imagine what the contemporary fundamentalists would make of this.  Actually, we need not just imagine.  For all of the sacred erotic art in Nepal, there were many more icons that have been defaced or stolen, especially by the Moslems who tried, unsuccessfully, to conquer the country in the thirteenth century.  When the Taliban destroyed ancient images in Afghanistan, they were not doing anything new.  The same impulse was evident when John Ashcroft ordered that the nude statues in the US Capitol building be covered with cloth garments, or when rampaging Hasidim in Jerusalem burn down bus stops with ads showing women in “immodest” dress.

With all of that eros, a little (or a lot) of death can’t be far away. . . and it isn’t.  We, westerners, avert our eyes from death; here, it is an inescapable part of life.  Pashupatinath borders the Dhobi Kola River, which eventually flows into the sacred Ganges and is, therefore, holy by association.  The river banks are lined with ghats, Hindu cremation platforms.  I watched several cremations taking place: mourners wailed while just a few feet away, bathers splashed happily, and monkeys scampered back and forth between the two groups, jumping off bridges and swimming through floating garbage and flower garlands.  There were also clusters of priests, shaving mourners’ heads, and mostly naked, heavily made-up and dread-locked sandhus, Hindu holy men sitting in contorted yoga positions—some genuine, others just fakes taking money to pose with tourists for pictures. 

All of this was, to say the least, an eyeful for me, and I will never forget it.  It felt like I was given a glimpse that contained a universe: life, death, joy, sorrow, men and women and children and animals, nature and urban culture, sacred and profane.  To complete the scene, we crossed the river and entered an old age home, for the unfortunate elderly poor who are not taken in by their relatives, as is customary in Nepali culture.  Their rooms look like a prison or barracks, with dozens squeezed into narrow halls filled with tiny wooden sleeping platforms, men on one side, women on the other.  The home’s lattice windows look out on the burial platforms, surely a harbinger of things to come.  In the central courtyard of the facility stands an ancient pipal or bodhi tree.  It was under such a tree that the Buddha, Siddharta Gautama (who was born in Lumbini, Nepal) found enlightenment while meditating in India; for Hindus, the pipal is also one of the many incarnations of the sustainer-god, Vishnu.  And for the elderly residents here, it was a fine source of shade. 

Last but not least, I saw the largest statue in the Pashupatinath, though, as a non-Hindu, I could only glimpse it through a doorway.  It is a huge, gleaming gold bull.  Shiva is said to have ridden such an animal, and it is, for Hindus, a symbol of strength and power.  But for me, as a Jew, this conjured up very different images, which brought me back to a subject I’d not surprisingly been contemplating much of the morning: idolatry.

How, as a rabbi and as a Jew, do I respond to this very foreign culture, with its thousands of gods and goddesses and myriads of images?  This was different, and new to me.  I’ve lived under Christianity for my entire life, and had many encounters with Islam.  Of course these faiths are sometimes at odds with Judaism (think about public school in December, or the Middle East any day of the year) but these disagreements, however serious, are like fights within the family.  We differ on much, but we share significant common values and roots, even when we are killing one another.

But the religious experience here is utterly other to me.  It’s like living in an uncanny dream, and then waking up, utterly disoriented, in the mysterious home of inscrutable strangers.  I saw so much that was the complete antithesis of the religious life I’ve practiced and taught.  Just consider the mourners I saw along the river banks.  It begins with cremation.   Then, the mourners shave their heads and, for the next thirteen days, do not touch another human being, or even food prepared by another human being.  They pray in temples full of penises (uncircumcised, of course!) and also swastikas (which, one must note, were their symbol long before the Nazis profaned it.)  How foreign this all feels!  For us, cremation goes along with the swastikas, but with such different and dark associations.  During our morning periods, we refrain from shaving.  The whole point of shiva (the Jewish version, not the god) is to be surrounded by others, who embrace us and prepare our meals.  And given our tradition’s aversion to images of any sort, it is hard to imagine a giant phallus at the center of a synagogue (though some congregants, gazing out at their not-so-beloved rabbi or cantor, might not find this so unusual.)

So this whole Nepali experience made me a little uneasy.  And that is good: life—religious life especially—should not be about staying in one’s comfort zone all the time.  I’m sticking with my good, old-fashioned, original monotheism, but, hopefully, in a more open and thoughtful way in the wake of this encounter.  As I noted earlier, I’m realizing that in their polemic against paganism, the prophets sell it short.  To begin with, for all the differences, it is also hard not to see ourselves in some of the Hindu and Buddhist practices.  Judaism began as a sacrifice-centered tradition, too.  We offered up our share of animals and poured plenty of blood upon our altars.  This is so very evident in the Torah portions that we are reading these days, from the book of Leviticus, which consists primarily of detailed descriptions of the korbanot, the sacrificial cult.  And lest we think that we are so superior in our thinking, Mangalal explained to me that many Buddhists and Hindus actually believe that there is only one God; for them, the whole pantheon of gods and goddesses is a kind of metaphorical expression of different aspects of divine power—rather like the kabbalistic sefirot in our tradition, or the Christian trinity.  Yes, there are plenty of Buddhists and Hindus who take this stuff literally, but we Jews don’t lack for fundamentalists who literally believe the world is 5769 years old, either.  I’ve always believed that religion—any religion—becomes ridiculous when taken literally.  It’s all about metaphor, and there can be a great deal of overlap between our metaphors.  I don’t want to minimize the very real differences between faiths, but there are also profound similarities, places where we come full circle and meet.  Perhaps sitting shiva and sitting with the mourners in the shadow of Shiva is not so different as it seems.


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