Australians seem to love India. I love it so much I live there. India’s a brilliant place—all adjectives are applicable: vast, beautiful, incredible, exotic, breathtaking, amazing, awesome, and quite often, hilarious. It’s a wonderful place to live. The lifestyle, the scenery, the peace—I mention peace because although I go to Calcutta regularly, I live in a peaceful, picturesque village 135km north of the city.
The diversity of both lifestyles is available to me, any time I want it: from rural village life on the river, to the teeming, chaotic city—you name it, India’s got it. Especially people. It’s got plenty of them. A billion, roughly. And with that many people on your doorstep, endless possibilities exist to write about absolutely anything. All you have to do is look out your window, and inevitably, there it is: a story waiting to be written.
It’s morning right now: the beginning of cold season, when soft mists roll gently into the day, hovering until mid-morning, when the warm rays of the winter sun dissolve the ethereal atmosphere and dry the dew on the grass. And at this time of day, everyone’s at it. Morning ablutions? Not quite. (That’s an entirely separate article: the image of millions of bare bums taking their morning constitutional in an open field …) No, I’m talking about India’s second favorite pastime: worship.
No other country in the world can hold a candle to the pantheon of gods and goddesses that India boasts. Bursting at the seams with demigods of every size, color and purpose—33 million of them at last count—India has led the race with the worship of these personalities since time immemorial. The country spills over with images of a black goddess with a protruding, blood-red tongue, one foot planted on the chest of her conquered husband, prostrate at her feet (down, girls—she is, after all, the goddess of the material creation); a dread-locked god with a trident, bedecked with garlands of skulls; a pot-bellied elephant who writes scripture with the tip of his broken-off tusk; a monkey who leapt over an ocean to prove his loyalty. That’s without mentioning the un-demi, the uber-god, the real thing: Krishna—a cowherd boy with unlimited girlfriends, a wicked sense of humor, and the tendency to steal. With a God like that, who wouldn’t be religious?
Temples proliferate the landscape in villages, towns and cities, in back lanes and back yards; all are abundant with sometimes opulent, sometimes simple temples of all sizes, shapes, and purposes. Dawn sees millions across the nation heading to the holiest of rivers, Ganga, to bathe in and simultaneously worship this personality who came down from the spiritual realm via the Himalayas through the hair of Lord Shiva. In India, everything and everyone is “worshipable.”
The country is soaked in devotion, its inhabitants ritualistic and regulated devotees of millions of gods and goddesses and their personified forms of rivers, mountains, earth, trees, stones—nothing is disqualified. The tulasi tree, whose leaves are crucial to the worship of Krishna, or Vishnu; Bhumi, mother earth; and of course the sacred cow, who has a day set aside for her worship during the month of Kartika (November), and who, in seeming evidence of her divine status, is the only creature on this planet who can stand in downtown rush hour traffic and not run the risk of being squashed.
Yet within this environment richly imbued with loving devotion lies the not-very-surprising cancer of religious deception. A kind of serious topic, but somehow or other, in India, it becomes amusing. Wayward gurus, bogus yogis, and bidi-smoking, woman-chasing “sadhus” (holy men) run riot through the temples and ashrams around the country, all of them spouting their own version of an ancient philosophy; all of them convinced of their own path; some of them convinced they’re God. Foreigners have fallen for the same routine since the 1960s, when the Beatles made it popular and the Hare Krishnas drove the demand for eastern mysticism through the roof. Sensing a windfall, the local boys’ eyes fell on a scam, and their hearts and minds followed. They died their cloth, sharpened their tongues, got the dealers busy, and swished their dreadlocks tantalizingly in the face of the tourists.
Foreigners fell for it, a market was created, and suddenly the whole world had a guru, or wanted one. Spirituality eastern-style became de rigeur, and in the rush to make a fast buck, most of the genuine swamis got trounced by those with their eyes on the greenback. I’m not entirely sure that it’s changed much since then: possibly just a whole lot more choice in the guru field. But when all is said and done, the basis is something of substance: the recognition of a higher authority, the acknowledgement of a living, breathing universe; a greater power, a necessity for divine guidance. Most everyone in India has the same approach, though the flavors may vary. Religious deception aside, it makes for a peaceful, respectful existence.
Which makes you wonder why Western countries think they have so much more to offer. Most are convinced that India is awash with graven images at whose feet sinful idolaters fall. The Americans think India would be better off pursuing new cars, designer wardrobes, and all manner of shiny techno-toys rather than demigods and deity worship. The British were just plain miffed that anyone would worship God in any way other than their way. They tried (unsuccessfully) to destroy Hinduism with repeated attempts to dismantle what was, in their eyes, a pagan-like idol worship through the efforts of anti-Hindu propaganda.
Prior to that, the Muslims were in it for the sport. Around 500 years ago, the emperor Aurangzeb’s troops entered the holy town of Vrindavan, a couple of hours north of Delhi, destroying temples and seizing the deities—all of them Radha-Krishna deities—that resided within. Many of them were whisked to safety by their devoted worshippers hours before the soldiers hit town. Those very same deities stand unharmed today in temples throughout the centre of Jaipur, Rajasthan, where they were taken all those years ago. Similar deities are down the road in your friendly neighborhood Hare Krishna temple. The local council authorities might have tried to stop the Hare’s in the 1960s and 1970s in downtown Melbourne and Sydney, but at least they didn’t resort to temple burning. (Though if their parking policies are anything to go by, who knows what the future holds.)
Yet despite the efforts of Emperor Aurangzeb, the British, the Americans, and any number of local council heavies, I have to admit that India’s got it over pretty much anyone else when it comes to the spiritual—despite the occasional bride burning, but that’s another story. It has long been considered the most spiritual country in the world, and it’s not surprising. Name your poison, and come and get it; it’s a smorgasbord over here. But take Dr. Zappa’s advice: watch out where them huskies go and don’t you eat that yellow snow …