Not far from the central Indian city of Damoh lies a small, but significant temple built to house worship of the Hindu Lord Shiva, the Destroyer. This particular temple is said to contain a stone which is a remnant of Lord Shiva’s Phallus, removed in pieces during a cosmic marital spat, and landed, quite appropriately in India. I had the honor, I would say, of being guided into Lord Shiva’s temple by the guardian of the grounds. The guardians’ demeanor was very matter-of-fact, as to him, the proceedings that were to take place were all in a days work. The atmosphere of the temple was less that of a Catholic cathedral and more that of a roadside tent holding a purported saintly relic. The grounds were wet, dark, grimy, and in some ways, reminded me of a carnival exhibit more than a Holy Temple. After being introduced to the five or so minor idols, we were led into the inner sanctum of residence for the stone-Shiva. This figure, we were told, was honored and worshiped via fire, incense, and the deafening report of drums and cymbals. This was to be initiated on the clock, coinciding with unveiling of the Shiva-linga (Sanskrit term). From a cultural standpoint, I was fascinated the process, having never been exposed to any Hindu rituals or practices this intimately. Standing in the wet, steaming temple, ears plugged due to the amount of noise being produced, I began to tire of the spectacle as it went on, until I noticed several local devotees enter the Temple and prostrate themselves rather violently before the Idol. I realized at that point that this was a relationship borne partly out of fear of the god and its power.
For many devotees in India, paying amends to the god of the moment in person is a methodology for appeasement against potential negative effects of the gods wrath or disfavor, even with deities that are purportedly arrayed against the forces of evil. This fear was manifested in the attitude of the worshipers, whose movements indicated not solemn respect and reverence, but a trembling before the essence of Shiva. While certain sacred Hindu texts like the Bhagavad-Gita speak of an attitude of enlightened respect for the role of the Gods in the fabric of the cosmos, they do not mention much in the way of exact methods to worship said deities. This creates a situation where believers can be paralyzed by the ever-shifting nature and lack of ability to know if one is doing what is proper in being Hindu. Our temple guardian even mentioned that he prays to Jesus Christ as one of the many deities on his list. My mind is overwhelmed in contemplating how one would keep up on this responsibility. Hinduism is a fluid, evolving, religion, and of the world’s major ones, is the only polytheistic religion. This makes Hinduism very unique but also in many ways, difficult to understand and grasp. Returning to the Shiva temple, I remember wondering how much time and effort was spent by the devout Hindus in attempting to please their Gods, any of which could potentially cause disfavor if not honored properly? It struck me how, despite nationalist identity, that Hinduism in the form practiced by a not insignificant number of Indians, is an obstacle to societal progress in India. Interestingly enough, some Indian politicians, including the nations first Prime Minister, could be considered what one would call “Hindu Atheists.” Jawarhalal Nehru himself stated, “The ideology of Hindu dharma is completely out of touch with present times.” The rendezvous I had with Shiva, or more appropriately, Shiva’s followers, gave me a greater appreciation for Nehru’s sentiment.
Despite my somewhat negative impression of the Shiva temple worship, I can understand why Indians would want to protect Hinduism as a whole, and Hindu nationalists dislike of attitudes and symbols of western domination is not unfounded. Doubtless, many missionaries and others in the past, British or not, would have witnessed the Shiva temple demonstration, seen it as something supposedly demonic or evil, and made attempts to eradicate it. Unfortunately, this attitude ends up creating mistrust and resentment, which we witnessed earlier in our trip after some run-ins with Indian law enforcement. (I’ll leave that for another post.) In my view, the attitude displayed by the worshipers at the Shiva temple is a symptom of ignorance, poverty, lack of education, and lack of exposure to much of the world at large. A not insignificant portion of India’s population still lives in small villages or cities in the countryside, and hence, are isolated from the reach of more modernizing influences. I was very impressed at the efforts that the mission in NAME WITHELD that we visited had put towards serving the needs of the local community. The leaders had established a hospital, nursing school, children’s home, and bible school all to serve the local community. We had a chance to visit the hospital, which was in the surrounding town, and I was inspired by how they had taken the Biblical command to “heal the sick” to heart. Motions like these are ones that resonate with people, and when they realize that people can do good when motivated my love rather than fear, perhaps people would be attracted to that appeal. That being said, fear and tradition are very hard influences to break, and there are many Indians that would likely attend chapel, accept Christian charity, and worship at the Shiva Temple all in one mix. In some ways, this is emblematic of the essential paradox of India.
As I sit in my room back home, thousands of miles away from Damoh, surrounded by first-world distractions, I realize that in some ways, I and the Shiva worshipers are not all that different. While the power of Shiva may have an inordinate influence in the lives and minds of some Indians, don’t many Americans worship Idols such as reality TV, celebrities, smart phones, etc…? Aren’t our lives in many ways, controlled by the Dollar God, the Fame God, the Peer Pressure God? While we may not be prostrating before our smartphones every night, the element of control is in some ways, the same. We are all indeed, human, subject to human fear, human envy, greed, and everything else under the sun.
* I want to mention that I am not trying to claim that Hinduism is an inherently evil religion, as many commonly held doctrines such as nonviolence and respect for living things are morally admirable, however the fluidity and lack of structure that can be present in Hindusim leads to a wide variety of practices and interpretations of belief.