Saturday, January 17, 2009

India V: Are you there, God? It's me, Mithridates.


On the drive from Udaipur to Jodhpur, we stopped off in Ranakpur to visit the Adinatha, a Jain temple built in 1439. It's one of the five holy Jain pilgrimige sites in India, but it's sort of in the middle of nowhere, so not quite as overrun with tourists as your typical giant, intricate, centuries-old temple in India. We removed our shoes and walked in through the entrance (pictured above) to be greeted by a very friendly — and clearly devout — Jain man dressed in what looked like a Roman toga.

High Priest: Hello, and welcome to the Adinatha. I am the high priest of the temple. Would you allow me to show you around and explain the history of the temple and some of the important facets of the Jain religion?
M: Sure! Thank you very much! We'd like that very much!

After a few days of being hounded by hotel touts, shopkeepers, and beggars, it was quite a relief to be in a place free from that, where people were just friendly for the sake of being friendly and you could be shown around a temple — not by some huckster trying to scam a few dollars off you — but by a man of god who just wanted to share his faith with strangers.

He showed us around some (not all) of the 1444 engraved pillars, each one individually carved, no two identical. He showed us the tree trunk that looked just like the trunk of the Indian god Ganesh and explained to us that he was the 17th generation of high priests dating back to the early days of the temple.

At the end of the tour, the priest explained to us that they were a poor people and that maintenance of this beautiful cathedral was paid for by the kind generosity of pilgrims and tourists. I gladly gave the man 200 rupees, happy to contribute to the upkeep of such an architectural and religious treasure. On our way out we saw a group of tourists greeted by another Jain togate.

Huckster: Hello. I am the high priest of the temple.

I couldn't believe that some unscrupulous hawker would commit open blasphemy in a holy temple mere feet from the real high priest. And the poor suckers believed him! And no doubt gave him money that should be going to the temple . . .

But I came across many true believers in my brief travels. Most people I spoke with seemed to honestly believe in Hindu or Muslim god(s). But for most of the Hindus it seemed to be a more personal experience than religion in the west. My Gujarati host didn't go to temple, but he believed in the gods. His favorite god was Lord Vishnu because of his message of peace. My favorite Hindu god is Ganesh. People pray to him to remove obstacles, but I like him because of the elephant head. My host was a religious Hindu, but his favorite Christian god was St. Jude, whom people pray to for help with lost causes.

Of course, in the swankier parts of Mumbai, religion seems to lose its grip. Like everywhere else, the young, cosmopolitan hipsters are more educated and wealthy, like Western dress and music, and aren't as bothered by the Bhagavad Gita. But this is still a tiny fraction of the population. In Gujarat and Rajasthan, Hinduism seemed an important part of life. Ganesh was everywhere, people prayed to Vishnu, cows were sacred, people bathed in the Ganges (and you had better have one or more gods on your side if you are going to go come in personal contact with a river that washes away the ashes from funeral pyres, including the occasional whole dead baby floating along).

And yes, I did observe a small bit of tension between Hindus and Muslims only a couple of weeks after the attacks in Mumbai. Our hotel manager in Udaipur was convinced that Mulims in India are really on Pakistan's side. Almost everyone who spoke on the subject of the attacks — a subject I never brought up — expressed visible anger at Pakistan and wanted their government to do something about it instead of just talking. But only in that one case did it manifest itself as a Hindu-Muslim conflict instead of an India-Pakistan conflict.

In general people were very comfortable talking about their religious beliefs and asking me about mine. My psychiatrist friend from the train ride to Bera had spent quite some time explaining how important religion was to his life before turning the tables.

Psychiatrist: And you? Are you Christian?
M: No, I'm Jewish. But actually I'm not much of a believer.

And then I waited to see the reaction. Look, I think people are mostly good, but I've encountered some quirky beliefs about my people in far away lands. Eleven years ago my tour guide in Hanoi spent a day explaining to us how the Chinese had invaded several times and when they visit they throw trash on the ground; how the French had colonized them, treated them like animals, and then on their way out burned as many temples as they could; and finally how the Americans had waged a long and nasty war in their country. The next day on a boat in the middle of Halong Bay, he said he forgave all these people for what they'd done.

But there was one group of people he hated: Jews. You see, one time one of his customers refused to pay an extra five-dollar charge he claimed he wasn't told about. So my tour guide punched him in the face and made him take the bus back to town. The tour guide's friend kindly explained to the guide that it was because the customer was from a country that's all Jews. And there you have it. Buddhists, Catholics, and Protestants (and sure, some Jews, too) can invade, burn, and destroy on a massive scale and they're all forgiven. One Jew (maybe?) stiffs him five bucks and he hates us all forever. So there I was on a boat in the middle of the otherwise deserted bay with my Kung Fu-trained guide, a crew of three and just me and my female companion. If the guy wanted to hit me on the head and thrown me over, no one would ever find me. Of course, my companion then helpfully blurts out "Oh come on, don't you know Mithridates is Jewish?" But everything worked out fine and by the end of the trip I hope some prejudices had been dispelled.

OK, sincere apologies for the Vietnamese diversion. Here we are back in the train waiting to see if my friend harbored any such feelings.

But no, not this guy. He had nothing but fondness and praise for my people.

P: Oh, a Jew! Jews are wealthy industrialists in your country. And you have great power and influence in your government!
M: Uh, well . . .
P: Yes, it's true. I read that somewhere.

And it was clear that this just made him have more respect for me. My brief protests to the contrary, suggesting that this might be a simplistic exaggeration and crude generalization, were taken as merely modesty on my part. From his point of view, I was a member of a wealthy and powerful caste in my country and he was paying me a compliment.


Unknown said...

Superb Judy Blume reference used in the title. I learned of Ganesh on the Simpsons when Apu asks Homer not to feed him a peanut. Temple looks pretty neat though.

Mithridates said...

I was there for over two weeks and didn't meet a single person named Apu. One of life's many disappointments.

Anonymous said...

When I told my Indian friend that I keep a statue of Shiva in my bedroom, he told me that I should immediately remove it and replace it with Ganesh. Shive promotes bad bedroom karma apparently. There you have it.

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