Hinduism is perhaps the faith tradition that is most foreign to Westerners. At first encounter, the Hindu gods seem like the perfect example of the idols that Christians, Jews and Muslims are told not to worship. These gods come in many forms, male and female, with the heads of monkeys, boars, and elephants, holding strange objects in their many hands, riding on swans and bulls and rats, angry and fierce, cuddly and cute, brightly colored like cartoon characters.
In the mid-nineties my husband Mark and I began traveling to India and fell in love with many aspects of this very foreign country. At first we were both attracted and repelled by the strangeness of the Hindu gods. Not only were they extremely unlike Western images of God in their appearance, but Indian people treated them so differently. We saw them everywhere, from the first moment we arrived: in a shrine in the airport, on the dashboard of a taxi, on billboards and matchboxes, decorating hotels, in dirty little corners of alleys.
At first, it seemed weird and inappropriate to me that worship could take place in the midst of dirt and squalor in a dingy street or in the midst of daily life in the back of a store. Yet I found myself moved by the worship of the Hindu people. The evidence of what seemed to be unceasing worship began to make me feel envious. God was everywhere! I began to experience God myself, to feel the presence of God in the reverence of the Hindu worshippers, to see God in their devotion. As I felt the familiar feeling of the presence of God, I realized that it was the same God, not a different set of gods, but a series of images all pointing towards the one God, the God I knew.
Hinduism is usually described as polytheistic, a word which Westerners use to emphasize its differences from the monotheism of Western religions. However, the term polytheism is somewhat misleading and inadequate. It emphasizes the many gods of Hinduism without expressing the element of God's oneness which is also contained in Hinduism. In Hinduism the Brahman is the one absolute God who is beyond all images and representation. Yet Hindus recognize that the worship of such an abstract vision of the divine is beyond the capabilities of most people, and the images of specific gods provide for the reality of human needs and limitations. As each Hindu god is worshipped, there is a sense that one is addressing the one God, not that one is dividing God up into parts.
While the polytheistic vision of Hinduism incorporates an element of oneness that may not be evident at first glance to the Westerner, the Judeo-Christian tradition also contains elements of manyness that are readily apparent in scripture, yet sometimes overlooked as a result of the Judeo-Christian tradition's emphasis on monotheism. When I studied the Old Testament in seminary I was utterly bewildered by the myriad and apparently irreconcilable images of God I found there, and I struggled to make any sense of what I was reading until it occurred to me that the varied personae of God in the Old Testament reminded me an awful lot of the Hindu gods. The God who acts as a creator at the beginning of Genesis soon reappears as a destroyer god who kills all of humankind except Noah and his family. In Exodus, he again becomes a genocidal murderer, "blotting out" the Amorites, Hittites, Per'izzites, Canaanites, and Hivites in order to make room for Moses and the Israelites. He appears to Abraham as three men at once, communicating a mysterious not-oneness of God rather reminiscent of the Hindu gods with many heads. He reveals himself to Moses as a burning bush, almost as mysterious as a Shivalingam, and later refuses to show Moses any part of himself except his back. He is a still small voice, a liberator, a military commander, a king, a lawgiver, and a bestower of plagues and hardness of heart. In addition, Hebrew scripture uses a number of female metaphors to suggest that we can think of God as a woman in labor, a mother holding us to her breast, or a mother bird sheltering her young under her wings. People of other faiths find it confusing that Christians believe in a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and yet claim to believe in one God. The relationship of the many and the one is just as complex in the Judeo-Christian tradition as it is in Hinduism. By emphasizing our monotheism, we tend to oversimplify our concepts of God, losing touch with the richness of imagery that is available to us in scripture and imagining God as monolithic and monotonous.
Hinduism is a rich religion with many difficult, weird elements that startle the Westerner. However, if we look for similarly peculiar and complicated elements within the Judeo -Christian tradition, we can find them. While the Hindu outlook encourages a diverse, multifaceted mindset that embraces opposites and contradictions, our concept that we are monotheistic can encourage us to streamline our image of God in the name of "oneness" and lose sight of the many faces of God that are available to us in our tradition. There are images in the Judeo-Christian tradition that seem almost hidden, not because scripture conceals them, but because they are so out of keeping with our conscious ideas about God that we are almost unable to see them. We need these forgotten images, the ones that challenge us or frighten us or boggle our minds. The Westerner's encounter with Hinduism can point to these difficult elements and show us new ways to recover and integrate them into our faith.
Hindu worship is inspiring for many reasons. Hindus never seem to stop worshipping: with their ubiquitous temples and shrines, their worship of rivers and trees, they see reminders of God everywhere they look. Their sensual rituals often involve incense, butter lamps, bells, music, and chanting, and they decorate the gods with colored powders and flower garlands. On my first visits to India, I envied the intimacy with which Hindus treated the gods, the way they were able to approach them so familiarly and affectionately, dressing their images in little clothes like dolls, feeding them, welcoming them into their home shrines. I admired the richness with which Hindu worship is woven into every aspect of culture so that it is not cut off from the rest of life as religion so often is in the West.
The Hindu approach to worship is quite playful, as if Hindus feel that they can be who they are in worship, rather than trying to become something they're not. Children joyfully rub the statues. As the priests chant, a group of devotees might begin a different chant at the same time. Women whisper intimately into the bull Nandi's ear. Children grab handfuls of holy ash and sprinkle it on a statue of elephant-headed Ganesha as if they are playing in a sandbox. People bring colorful pieces of fabric and tie them around the statues of the deities. Everyone seems to be doing something just slightly different from anyone else.
My husband and I have become so interested in Hindu worship that we have traveled to India twice on pilgrimage with the monks of the Saiva Siddhanta Hindu Church and once with a monk named Dandapani, with whom we have become good friends. These trips have enabled us to enter fully into Hindu worship and to attend ceremonies that it would be very difficult for westerners to attend on their own, with monks as wonderful guides who help us to understand as much as possible what is taking place.
From my first trips to India I felt a powerful energy in the ancient temples. Later, when I had the opportunity to travel to India with the monks and learn more about what was happening in the worship at the different temples, I began to notice that the energy had different qualities in temples devoted to different gods. The energy at the goddess temples was intense and piercing and felt like it was rearranging me. The energy of elephant-headed Ganesha was more gentle and welcoming. The energy from the Shivalingam was enormous and seemed to run deep down into the earth. The swamis made references to these types of energy and their different characteristics, often after I had experienced them, suggesting that there is some kind of objective foundation to the sensations I experienced. One of the major differences between Hinduism and Western religious traditions is this open acknowledgment of experiences of energy. I have had these experiences in Christian worship, particularly during healing services and centering prayer, and I have heard other Christians' stories of energetic experiences. However, these kinds of experiences are not openly or regularly discussed at churches or seminaries in the way that they more commonly are in the Hindu tradition. Some forms of Hindu meditation are also extremely helpful in developing sensitivity to spiritual energy and understanding our connection to it.
What I have learned from Hinduism
Hinduism has challenged me to explore my own internal images of God. It has helped me to become conscious of the ways in which I am afraid of God and longing for more closeness with God. In the elephant-headed Ganesha, I see a deeply loving God who is willing to be friendly and almost clownish in order to make himself accessible to me. In the numerous goddess images I see a God who is willing to appear in my own form so that I can understand that I too as a woman am made in God’s image. In the mysterious Shivalingam, that strange non-representational form, I see a God beyond all forms and concepts. In the faithful Nandi, the bull who is the friend and servant of Shiva and who points towards the lingam, I see the worshipper’s longing for God that is itself a form of God. In the ferocious goddess Kali, I see God’s thirst for justice and willingness to do what is necessary to conquer evil. My sense of God has become larger since I began to explore Hinduism.
Hindu worship has inspired me to use images of God more often in my prayer, to look at and touch images that help me to feel an intimacy with God. I have been very grateful to the monks of the Saiva Siddhanta Church, to Dandapani, and to all our fellow pilgrims for an opportunity to worship alongside of them. I feel that this experience has opened me and brought me a step closer to all Hindu people and all people of other faiths.