Tag Archives: religion

High Security Easter: Hanuman, Cops and Christ

I remember the death of Christ and encounter the birth of a monkey god, cross barbed wire beset with flags and escape the clash of orange and green.

On Wednesday evening, sudden gusts whipped dust into my eyes and gloom descended over the Charminar, before the first rain I’d seen in weeks.  I took shelter in a second-floor air-con café, grabbed an ice coffee and an easy chair overlooking the square, and enjoyed the show for an hour.  As twilight deepened and the floodlights came on, the Charminar glowed purple, then rose, then yellow.  Lightning flashed behind it, though I heard no thunder.  The wind whipped flags.  Pyramids of fruit gleamed under bare bulbs.  Stall holders pulled tarpaulins over their carts and bag-sellers hurried off between showers.  Looking at headlights to see whether rain was still falling, I noticed how few vehicles had their lights on.

The weather seemed to herald the gloom of Good Friday, when darkness fell over Jerusalem as Jesus was crucified.  On Google I found Baptist Church Hyderabad was 10 minutes’ walk from my hotel, with a service at 11 am.  It sounded ideal.  Four policemen sat at the gate in front of rows of overflow seating under an awning.  There was an English bulletin and worship songs from Hillsong Australia were playing as I entered.  I also heard them in Korea and Kyoto years ago: the popular Protestant equivalent of the Roman Catholic mass in Latin.  The familiar tunes warm the heart of the homesick traveller and I hummed along with almost a tear, but it’s a shame more peoples aren’t praising God in their own style and tongue.

And, in fact, they were here.  The service turned out to be hours of incomprehensible Telegu.  For each of Christ’s seven last words from the cross there was a full sermon, prayers and bracket of songs.  Although I’d grabbed a pew under a fan, by 12:30 I’d emptied both my water bottles.  I slipped outside, heard shouting at the end of the street, and found out why the police were there.

hyderabad-hanuman-jayanti-motorbikesYoung men zoomed past on motorbikes or an occasional truck.  I switched my camera speed to ISO High.  They waved bright orange or red pennants.  The cloth triangles showed a black silhouette of a jumping monkey wielding a mace.  The Christian Good Friday was also the Hindu Hanuman Jayanti, the birthday of the monkey god.  In the Ramayana epic, Hanuman and his simian hordes helped the divine Lord Ram recover his kidnapped wife (see my post here).  From a lamp post hung a political banner, showing party members alongside the blue-skinned Ram embracing Hanuman.  When motorcyclists shouted “Jai Shri Ram”, or “Hail Lord Rama”, the crowd responded with the same words, especially to the mighty hollering of a zealot standing on a motorbike.

hyderabad-hanuman-jayanti-political-posterI remembered the headline in The Times of India at breakfast: “Blanket of Security for Rally Today”.  “Heavy bandobust arrangements are in place” and “10K Cops Deployed”, including 32 battalions of Special Police and four companies of Rapid Action Force, with peace committee volunteers also on vigil.  In British times the ruling Nizams were marked by religious tolerance, but Hyderabad has since become known as a riot-prone city.  In 2010, Hindu flags in Muslim areas sparked stone pelting and communal clashes at the Hanuman rally, leading to several days of curfew.  This year an inflammatory leader of a fundamentalist Hindu party was allowed to speak publicly.

“Police is geared up to handle any situation proactively” assured the commissioner, with police pickets near mosques and churches “to prevent any untoward incident.”  One building the size of a shed was encircled by coiled razor wire and covered in a tarpaulin.  Through a crack I glimpsed green, the colour of Islam: it was a Muslim shrine.

Ebbing and flowing, the stream of flags on wheels seemed endless.  Organisers had expected the bike rally to attract over 200,000 participants.  They were officially requested “not to cover their faces and not to hide the vehicle registration numbers with stickers”.  Many shops were keeping security roller doors down until after the Muslim Friday afternoon prayers.  Further along the street, youths danced to pumping Hindu music.  A lad waved a banner far longer than himself.  Small plastic pockets of water were distributed to sweating devotees.  No doubt many had downloaded the Hanuman ringtones advertised in the paper.

hyderabad-hanuman-jayanti-flagsTraffic piled up behind police barricades on side streets and to get back to my hotel, I had to climb through barbed wire strands and weave through the gridlock.  I recalled the Passover festival in Jerusalem two millennia ago, when the presence of Roman troops was pumped up to make sure religious excitement didn’t turn to revolution.  The tensions between idol-worshipping Romans and monotheistic Jews were not unlike those between Hindus and Muslims here today.

I read of the aftermath a few days later, once I was safely in Bangalore.  There were a few jitters as the procession passed a mosque and a few Muslims with slogans, but no real trouble and the cops were relaxed.  Later on, however, riots broke out.  People were stabbed.  Dead animals and dog parts were thrown into places of worship.  For much of the week the old city around the Charminar where I’d been in the previous days was completely closed.  Tourists were frustrated.  Shops lost revenue.  Residents were running out of medicine and milk.

O come the day when the Prince of Peace, killed in darkness at Easter and risen in new life, will complete his work and break down every wall of resentment, religion and race.


Royal Birthdays and Sporty Buddhas: Serenity in Bangkok

Clogged lungs and quiet streets, 7-Elevens and temples, saffron monks and lemon kings, sweet and salty feet.

I had a smooth flight from Bangalore to Bangkok on Sunday night, but with little sleep.  Beside me a large Indian gentleman forced me into the aisle and a small girl behind whacked my seat should I dare to doze.  On arrival I took a taxi to my guest house. With variously-shaped glass buildings soaring all around, it seemed like the 21st century after Indian cities, where I saw few skyscrapers.  A hazy red sun was rising at the end of the street: the beautiful side of smog.  (See my Bangkok photos here)

I was impressed by the wide, smooth highways.  Mini-bus utes chugged along with two rows of passenger benches on the back.  Motorbikes carried multiple passengers without helmets, but the streets were free of litter and potholes.  I hardly heard car horns and many drivers indicated before changing lanes.   First-timers in Asia come to Bangkok from the West and complain of the chaos.  Returning from the other direction, I was surprised to find how quiet and peaceful, clean and tidy, an Asian city of 10 million can be.

My parting souvenir from India was a smoker’s wheeze – I wondered how many cigarette-equivalents of pollution I consumed per day.  An article in the New Indian Express, “It’s Getting Harder to Breathe” said 20% of Chennai adolescents suffer from wheezing, so I’m not alone, and perhaps 1/8 of premature deaths in India are due to air pollution (Luce 2006 348).  In Bangkok I was never conscious of fumes.

On the street kids played badminton (instead of cricket in India), while their elders relaxed in shady cafés over chess.  Guys lovingly polished their bright new cars, often pink.  India’s mangy street curs all looked much the same to me, but here there is a range of dog breeds, often with collars, as well as many cats.  There are no bars on windows against human or monkey intrusion.

The Thai people seem so laid-back.  A few blind beggars in town shuffle along with speakers playing music on their back, donation-box on their chest, but they never approached or harassed me as in India.   I saw the high-tech IT-Square mall and browsed the narrow lanes of the amulet market: round medallions, figurines of copper, brass, silver or gold, shining plastic or faded terracotta statues of Buddha or Hindu gods to hang around one’s neck.  Nowhere did proprietors pounce; in fact they hardly noticed me.  Rather than fighting off every passing auto-rickshaw’s offers of “help”, I had to wave down taxis and their drivers always switched the meter on.

Everywhere you look is the red-orange-green logo of 7-Eleven superettes, and Thai Buddhist temples or wats.  Soaring red, gold, blue roofs with shining glass tiles.  Black Buddha statues were slim and athletic, unlike the East Asian laughing Buddha with his belly like Jabba the Hutt’s.  They were covered in fluttering square-inch leaves of gold foil, scented with buckets of burning joss sticks.  I was overwhelmed by the vast Temple of the Emerald Buddha.  It’s a riot of dazzling statues and glittering glass, soaring gables and gold stupas.  Respectful dress is required: pre-warned, I’d worn socks in my sandals to cover my feet, while bare-legged women are lent wrap-around sarongs at the gate.

Saffron-orange robed monks are also everywhere, from venerable sages to lads blowing soap bubbles: an apt symbol of a faith that teaches the fleeting of all things.  Another monk was up a ladder, wiring fluorescent tubes around a huge royal portrait.

The Thai are very religious and they love their king.  December 5 was His Highness the King of Thailand’s 80th birthday and I read all about him in my Thai Airways magazine.  He is the world’s longest-reigning monarch (61 years) and a gifted polymath: saxophonist and jazz composer, regatta-winning yachtsman, agricultural experimentalist, eradicator of diseases.  He is deeply loved by his people who display his portraits in schools, shops, houses, billboards.  Many people wore T-shirts of lemon yellow, his birth day’s colour.

His Highness seems the picture of a true king, as if from a legend.  His list of accomplishments sounded like the biblical King David and King Solomon rolled into one: victorious general, harpist and songwriter, student of nature and sage.  I will use him to introduce my sermon next Sunday on the Magi from the East visiting the baby king Jesus.  But I occasionally found the adulation disturbing.  In a black and white newsreel, for example, an old Thai lady placed her head beneath the king’s foot.

The following day I caught the Chao Phraya River taxi boat into town, past many more temples and corrugated iron huts.  I wouldn’t swim in the brown, weedy river, but it was less aromatic than Indian equivalents.  I tested the four Thai condiments of salty fish oil, sweet chilli sauce, sour chillies and spicy-hot chillies on chicken fried rice as I overlooked the river, watching water lapping through the wooden floor planks.

Thai culture is heavily shaped by pre-Buddhist belief and practice.  There are many little spirit houses with fruit and incense offerings.  Temples had murals of the Hindu Ramayana epic and I’ve seen many Indian elements, like greeting with hands together as if in prayer, and not touching or pointing with the soles of your feet.  An Indian story tells of a holy man sleeping in a temple.  The priest reprimanded him for lying with his feet pointing towards the idol and he replied, “God is everywhere.  Where is he not?”  He was a courteous man so he changed position anyway.  Such was his holiness that he woke to find the idol had moved to again stand before his soles.

Queuing for Krishna and Avatar Blues

First-class Krishna, dreaming Vishnu, and a zoo of incarnations: revamping Noah, avenging Macbeth, and the warrior on a white horse.

After attending church and visiting Bangalore palace, I took a rickshaw to the Sri Radha Krishna temple of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), the full name of the Hari Krishna movement.  Wearily sitting on a wall, I counted 70 sardines in one of 7 queues, on one of two entrance levels, yielding a guestimated 1000 souls in Purgatory.  I later learned that 20,000 visit per day in the weekend and only 7-10,000 on weekdays, so Sunday was a bad choice.  My mounting disinclination to bother was strengthened by signs warning against pickpockets.  I gave up and was on the way out, when I stumbled across a counter selling express tickets.

I paid 150 rupees (NZ$5), was rushered through sandal, bag and camera check-in, metal detection and pocket pat-down, and entered an exclusive lane (the “Krishna class” perhaps).  I like to think I’m more spiritually sincere than many a “mere tourist”, but I felt slightly guilty about buying the privilege.  I viewed the shrines at leisure and up close while real devotees streamed past behind me with only a distant glimpse.

The hilltop complex combines the white marble of temple towers with the blue-tinted glass of a high-rise office.  In the main hall, frescoes of Krishna’s life covered the ceiling and classical Indian musicians played in the centre.  Lamps, incense, food and money were offered to three pairs of richly clothed statues: Krishna and his consort Radha.  I kept a hand near my wallet when my luxury lane merged with the commoners’ crush.

My ticket included a clay pot of raison-nut-rice prasad, a banana-leaf plate of rice, and a complimentary book.  I chose the Nectar of Instruction that Hare Krishna acquaintances are studying back home, and some postcards to show them.   All in all, it was one of my most expensive days: four auto-rickshaw rides, two entry fees, two simple meals, two water bottles, half an hour Internet, 25 postcards and two slim books totalled 750 rupees or NZ $25.

Hare Krishnas are a type of Vaishnavite Hindu, following the way of bhakti or personal devotion to Vishnu as the supreme Lord.  Their foreheads are smeared with white paste in a pattern resembling a tuning fork or the Greek letter psi, which represents, I’m told, the foot of Vishnu.  Hare Krishnas worship Vishnu in his incarnation as Krishna, regarding all other gods as his manifestation in different forms.

Vishnu literally means the all-pervading, encompassing all space and time.  He sleeps on the serpent Ananta who floats on the cosmic ocean.  As Vishnu dreams, the long stalk of a lotus sprouts from his navel with the next Brahma sitting on the blossom.  Vishnu wakes, Brahma opens his eyes, and a new universe comes into being, supported on one of Ananta’s thousand hoods.  Millions of years pass until Vishnu’s day ends and he slumbers.  Universe and Brahma fade into nonexistence, the lotus withers.  Nothing exists through Vishnu’s long night, until he again wakes and the cycle repeats.  It reminds me of the verse that 1000 years in God’s sight are as a single day (Psalm 90:4).

Vishnu is mostly shown with blue skin, the colour of the endless sky or ocean.  At times he rides on the back of his Eagle Garuda, after which the Indonesian airline is named.  Vishnu has had 10 incarnations or avatars, appearing in physical form to protect the virtuous, overcome evil and restore righteousness at times of spiritual darkness.

Vishnu’s first came as a fish to rescue Manu, the first man and law giver, from a global deluge.  He carried the ship containing Manu’s family on his head – echoes of Noah’s Ark.  Subsequent incarnations as a tortoise and a boar ascend the evolutionary scale.

Long ages later, the demon Hiranyakashipa was growing in power and Brahma had awarded him a boon.  He would not die inside or outside his house, by day or by night, on the ground or in the sky.  He could be killed by no created being, no human or animal or demon.  No weapon could slay him, nor anything living or non-living.  Rather like Macbeth after the witches prophesied that he could not be killed by anyone born of woman, Hiranyakashipa thought himself immortal.  He claimed to be the supreme Lord without equal and resented his son Prahlada’s worship of Vishnu as supreme and omnipresent.

As he tried to kill Prahlada, Hiranyakashipa mocked, “Is your Vishnu here?  Is he there?  Where is he?  If he is everywhere, why is he not present before me in this pillar?”  Prahlada replied, “He was, he is, and he will be…  He is in pillars, and he is in the least thing.”  In a rage, Hiranyakashipa shattered the pillar with his mace.  Vishnu sprang forth in his fourth avatar as a man with a lion’s head and Hiranyakashipa discovered, as did Macbeth, that prophetic contracts can have loopholes.

As a god Vishnu is uncreated, neither human nor animal nor demon.  He seized Hiranyakashipa and dragged him to the threshold of his house (neither within nor without) and lifted him onto his lap (neither earth nor sky) to await dusk (neither day nor night), when he ripped Hiranyakashipa open with his nails (weapons that are neither living nor non-living) and sucked out the scoundrel’s blood.

Vishnu’s most beloved incarnations are less bloodthirsty and in human form.  His seventh and eighth avatars are Rama and Krishna.  Rama is a mighty prince and archer, mostly seen with a long bow, while Krishna stands playing a flute with crossed legs beneath a peacock feather, or frolics with enraptured maidens tending cows.

At the end of this current age of darkness, Vishnu will return in his tenth incarnation as the warrior Kalkin on a white horse, wielding a flaming sword to judge the wicked and reward the good.  The description is so similar to Christ’s return in the Apocalypse (Revelation 19:11-15), that some suspect Christian influence on the myth.

Fire and Vultures: the Cosmic Battle of Zoroastrianism

I find a Parsee Temple with a winged Shah and immortal flame.  I learn of forbidden shrines and dying faith; sweetened milk, a razor-sharp bridge, and scavenging Towers of Silence.

As I surveyed my map of the city, I spied an icon – two blocks from my guesthouse – like a squashed tower or lighthouse which completed my catalogue of Indian religions: Bangalore’s only Parsi or Zoroastrian temple.

The fence pillars were topped with stone flame.  Fire is worshipped by Zoroastrians as a symbol of divine purity and a flame burns continually inside their temples.  They say it is a mixture of fire once taken from potters, blacksmiths, brick makers and a lightning bolt.  Carved in stone above the entrance was a man with a winged ring around his waist who looked like an ancient Middle Eastern monarch.  This is the Farohar, an emblem of Emperor Cyrus the great, viewed by some as a guardian angel and often worn by Iranians.

Zoroastrians bar non-believers from entering their temples, so I browsed books and photo albums in the office.  Parsis are the richest community in India, with near 100% literacy, but marriage outside the faith is forbidden and numbers are shrinking.  There are only 100,000 worldwide, 75% of them in Mumbai.  A hot debate is whether to allow entry by conversion; they joke that the last two Parsis on earth will still be split over the issue.

Zoroastrians are proud of their Persian heritage.  Some claim their founder, Zoroaster or Zarathustra, was born several millennia before Christ, making this the earliest revealed monotheistic religion. The powers of evil tried to kill the baby Zoroaster with stampeding cattle, ravenous wolves and raging fire, but God saved him each time.  At the age of 30, he received a revelation and began to proclaim the one God, rejecting polytheism, animal sacrifice and idolatry.  In later Zoroastrianism, the evil spirit became an independent god.  In the cosmic struggle between light and dark we have free will to choose which side to take.

Zoroastrians await a saviour born of a virgin.  At the end of time, after a mighty battle between good and evil, all people will be resurrected to a final judgement: crossing a bridge to heaven.  For the righteous, the bridge will be broad and easy to traverse.  The wicked will find it narrow as a razor and fall off into hell.  Many think that these teachings influenced Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

In the seventh century A.D. invading Arabs gave the Zoroastrians a choice: convert to Islam or die.  Many fled to India where they were called Parsees, coming from Persia.  When they arrived on the west coast, the local ruler sent a bowl of milk, full to the brim, to show the land was too full for more people.  The Parsee priest dropped in sugar, which dissolved without causing the milk to overflow.  This showed they would sweeten society without driving anyone out.  They were permitted to stay, for which they are still deeply grateful.

Parsees hold that fire, earth, and water are all sacred, so corpses cannot be burned, buried, or thrown into the sea, as this would pollute them.  Bodies are traditionally left on the open tops of “towers of silence” to be picked clean by vultures, as a Bombay character in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1980) learned with surprise:

…he heard a dirty screech in the sky, and, looking up, had time to register that a vulture – at night! – a vulture from the Towers of Silence was flying overhead, and that it had dropped a barely-chewed Parsee hand, a right hand, the same hand which – now! – slapped him full in the face as it fell…

Neither Palace nor Poverty: the Middle Way of Buddhism

A six-tusked prophecy and an arrow-pierced swan, chariot shocks and bodhi trees; helping oneself in moderation to pillows and nirvana.

Continuing the series of introductions to India’s religions (see past posts about our classes on Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism), today we visited a Buddhist temple.  Although the Buddha lived in North India around 563-483 BC and his faith spread across the country, by AD 1000 it was reabsorbed by Hinduism – Buddha joined its collection of gods– and is now only followed by about 0.8% of India.  We were told this was the only Buddhist temple in South India (which I found hard to believe).

In the dimly lit hall we sat on a marble floor that reflected shining statues.  A spiky-headed Buddha meditated in the lotus position between respectfully standing lower Buddhas and huge blue vases.

A young bikkhu or monk told us the story of Buddha’s life.  His mother dreamed that a six-tusked elephant entered her womb.  That can’t been comfortable, and then it was prophesied that her son would either be the greatest of kings, or a world-denying sage.  Determined to avoid the latter, his father raised him in pampered opulence, but there were early hints of Buddha’s compassionate nature.  At the age of eight, his cousin shot down a swan.  Buddha pulled out the arrow, stuck it in his own hand to experience the pain, and nursed the bird back to health.  He then quarrelled with his cousin over who owned the swan, arguing that life belongs to him who saves life, not destroys it.

At 16 years old, Buddha’s education was complete.  He was married to a gorgeous cousin who bore him a son.  He had three palaces.  Anything he wanted was his.

At the age of 29, however, he rode his chariot through the streets and was upset by four sights.  He saw an old man, then a sick man, then a corpse, shocking him with the shortness and suffering of life.  On a fourth ride he saw an ascetic saint, serene in the face of the triple horror Buddha had just witnessed.

Leaving wife and child, palaces and pleasures – things that had brought him no peace – Buddha fled to the forest.  For six years he practised extreme asceticism, fasting himself almost to death.  He found no peace or freedom in this way either.  Finally he abandoned both extremes for the “middle way”.  Sitting under the bodhi tree in meditation, one day he attained nirvana: “ignorance was destroyed, darkness dispelled, knowledge had arisen, light had arisen.”  Free from chasing pleasure or destructive self-denial, he was able to love all living things, expecting nothing in return.

Buddhism may be the original self-help faith.  The monk explained that Buddha can’t give us this nirvana.  If you are hungry, someone else can’t eat for you; if you are sick, another can’t take your medicine.  He gave us all copies of the Dhammapada – as I shot golden Buddhas reflected in the floor – which says:

No one saves us but ourselves, no one can and no one may;
We ourselves must tread the path, Buddhas only show the way.

As the monk spoke to us, it seemed an attractive moderation.  Avoiding both silky Armani suits and nakedness in ashes, Buddhist monks wear simple saffron robes – he said these came from cemetery shrouds, the cheapest garb, so there was no fear of theft.  But I was disenchanted to observe several monks enter and take two or even three cushions to sit on.  Surely the middle way between numb-bummed denial and somnolent softness would be just one?  To put it bluntly, how come they sat serenely on stacks of pillows, showing precious little compassion as I squirmed on a single one?