Religion in India by Alan Bell

There are many religions in India and this article deals only with the major (80%) one of Hinduism (and its minor extreme manifestation of Jainism). These reflections come from a recent trip to India, which Sonia Tipper made a presentation on, to the Mothers’ Union.

Hinduism is polytheistic, and even the principal gods number several, each with his (or her) specific function and purpose: Brahma the Creator; Vishnu, the Preserver; and Shiva the Destroyer. At its simplest, Brahma is sidelined and there emerge two principal strands (Vaishnavas and Shaivas) ; add the cyclical concept of transmigration of souls, a complex caste system and animals masquerading as gods; for example, Hanuman (the monkey-god) and Ganesh (the elephant-god). You may also have heard of minor (if spectacular) deities such as Kali, worshipped by the sect of the Thuggees, who went around India garotting their victims as sacrifices to their goddess (of death; who was decked out with vipers, like the Gorgon - where’s Perseus when you need him?). An explanatory note: on death, you go up or down the caste system, on reincarnation, dependent on how you performed in your previous life: that is the moral lever.

When you go into a Hindu temple (and we went into several!) you are first struck by the other-ness of the environment: it is completely unlike a Christian church. For one thing, it’s deafeningly noisy – the air is filled with ringing bells and people chanting various sacred texts (mantras): it is said that the vowel sequences of certain chants stimulate different parts of the body, so that this action has a specific purpose in relaxing the participants in particular ways. Further, the place is full of idols, especially at the centre (covered with gold paint) in the holy of holies.

Idols - an old-fashioned (almost an Old Testament) idea which we tend to gloss over, in modern Christianity (though St. Paul is fairly specific on this subject: “we know that an idol is nothing in the world and that there is none other God but one.” – I Corinthians 8,4). When we went to the Elephanta caves, on an island offshore from Mumbai, the major Hindu deities were in evidence, but grossly mutiliated: they had been used for cannon practice by the Portuguese (as an aside, Britain was given Mumbai in 1662 as part of the dowry of Princess Catherine of Braganza, who married Charles II; we also got Algiers, but didn’t keep it). The carving in the caves is superb – giant statues coming out of the enormous bedrock of the island; the statues in subtle poses which highlight aspects of the creation myth and other Hindu beliefs. There is a giant ring outside for tethering your sacred cow (a bull, actually, which is the preferred transport for Shiva).

So was it vandalism of a high order to loose cannon at these works of art? I don’t think so: you have to consider the reaction of the sixteenth century Portuguese when confronted with these massive idols of a foreign faith – there is a genuine sense of fiendish evil in the caves; at least, there is for someone with Christian sensibilities: a manifestation of the other-ness of Hinduism. So is the caste system, which is said to be vaguely like our own class system. The caste system was described to us using the allegory of the human body: the high priestly caste is the head; the warrior caste is the arms; the merchant caste is the stomach and legs; and the untouchables are the feet ( it’s as bit more complicated than this, for example, with a specific caste for gardeners – the malis).

The Untouchables are the one group in the caste system which we Westerners are familiar with; and use to attack the inhumanity of the caste system. Untouchables (which classification has been banned by modern Indian governments) had jobs which no one else will do – notably handling human waste, in the form of excrement and dead bodies. This is not so foreign to us as it seems. One of the abiding Dickensian images is of the Little Crossing Sweeper, a firm favourite in Victorian romantic fiction; but this character swept away horse dung from street crossings, so that middle class ladies could negotiate them without defiling their hems – a classic Untouchable function. And, of course, there is the famous custom in Edinburgh of emptying chamber-pots out of an upper storey window, with a cry of “gardy-loo”, but without the simple courtesy of checking for pedestrians in the alley below. Modern tourists think this an endearing custom; of course it’s all been cleared up nowadays.

Another aspect of Hindu society which we are familiar with (and which British administrators tried and failed to stamp out) is suttee – the immolation of a widow in the flames of her husband’s funeral pyre. If you know your Wagner, you will be aware that Brunnhilde does just that on the pyre of Siegfried. However, not all Indians are burnt after death. There is a minor (if very wealthy) group called the Parsees (the word means Persian) who are Zoroastrians (fire worshippers) and do not contaminate sacred fire with the bodies of the dead. Their bodies are exposed on the famous Towers of Silence, where they are consumed by birds of prey, notably vultures. The Parsees come from the same country as the Magi – the Three Wise Men of the Christmas story.

You will note that these funeral practices, to our eyes rather barbaric, are in fact very effective in a warm climate for containing the risks of disposal of decomposing bodies.

The Jains are a non-Brahimical sect, absolutely committed to non-violence. That means that the adherents have to wear muslin masks over their mouths, to prevent airborne insects being consumed; and have to brush their paths to avoid treading on creatures which crawl. This makes their progress rather slow.

We went into the major Jain temple complex in India, at Ranakpur. We had to display no evidence of animal exploitation, so leather shoes and belts were out. There was also an objection to displaying bare (human) legs in shorts; however, suitable garments could be obtained (for a small fee) in the form of rather fetching pastel blue pyjama bottoms, to be wore over the offending shorts (I will never see Graham Tipper in the same light again!)

The temple itself was stupendous – a large building carved from marble, a stone so tough that the 1444 columns (each one unique) which supported the 29 halls had carvings as crisp as on the day they were done, in 1439 - to put that date in context: it’s more than fifty years ahead of the discovery of America; though of course the (Red) Indians knew it was there. The construction was beautifully laid out, with the exception of one column which was clearly well off vertical.

This acted as a reminder: only the gods are capable of perfection; mere man is flawed (though as a philosophical point one might say that, because there are several gods, they themselves are not immune from imperfection). Jain priests patrolled the temple, blessing the tourists for a small fee (one was reminded of the pre-Reformation Christian Church).

I overheard two Americans in conversation: “I got blessed !” “Gee, who did that?” “The priest, but it cost me five bucks!” He was robbed – we got blessed for much less, and left the temple looking like refugees from a kids’ party, with face paint streaming down our features in the midday sun.

So, what is the abiding memory of Hinduism in India? Well, I return to its other-ness. For the first time I understand the purpose of the Christian missionary movement; and I personally have seen what the missionaries were up against. And I therefore applaud their efforts to bring light into that profound darkness. This from someone whose only knowledge of mission work came from the film Chariots of Fire, in which one key character, Eric Liddell, is of a (Scottish) missionary family who serve in China; he died there during the Second World War.

I hope this article answers at least some questions. I further hope that it has not caused offence among believers.

Alan Bell