Wednesday, 3 February 2016

On India and spiritual matters...

I've been told that you can't really go to India without experiencing something of the spiritual, whatever your opinion on faith-related matters.

Based on what I encountered, it's true.

One of my travelling companions, M, who's been to India several times before, said that when he steps off the plane, it's as though a weight has been lifted from his shoulders, because suddenly you're in a place where possessing a faith - celebrating it, being open about it - is normal. And it's at that moment he realises how much matters of faith are hidden - too strong a word, let's say 'not advertised' - in the UK.

But this isn't a post to debate that fact; it's a post about the effect that Indian spirituality had on me during my recent visit. And it might be a bit longer than my normal blog posts, so feel free to have a cuppa in the middle of reading or come back to it later...

In Tamil Nadu, there is a higher than average percentage of Christians (around 5% instead of 2.5%) and in Trichy District, where we were based for much of our visit, the percentage is even higher - around 9%. That said, the majority of the population are practising Hindus, a fact made very obvious by the loudspeakers of the nearest temple, located a short distance from the hostel we were staying in, which transmitted music and prayers until 11pm on our first night (and often relayed a few more for good measure around 3.30am most mornings!)

So let's start with Hinduism first...

I don't know much about the faith, I'm ashamed to admit. I know there is one god, worshipped in different forms. I know there's karma - that if you do good in this life, you will achieve better in the next. But I didn't need to know much to be able to see what impact the faith has on Indian society.

It's hard to comprehend how visible and all-pervasive the Hindu faith is; there were roadside shrines, garlanded gods and men in business shirts praying openly on the pavement. Men and women (mostly men) would be smeared with sandalwood paste on their foreheads after morning prayers, schoolboys would have green or orange prayer scarves (I assumed) over their school uniforms, and I saw both buildings and factory machinery smeared with blessing patterns, as three fingers daubed the same stuff onto things rather than people.

A bank in Valparai

There were brightly decorated temples of varying sizes, tucked away in streets or in the middle of tea plantations or built atop great rocks, like the one in Trichy itself.

Looking down on the main Rock Temple in Trichy
from teh smaller shrine further up the rock.

There were stone monoliths, built thousands of years ago and still centres of prayer today. And there were pilgrims...thousands upon thousands of pilgrims, dressed in green or orange or red, walking.

A handful of pilgrims - nothing like the numbers we saw
in the days after this pic was taken

It was festival - and therefore pilgrimage - season. I will never forget the sight of the masses, walking 200km to say their prayers, following motorised shrines or carrying kavadi, extra burdens to show the sincerity of the prayer. The rest stops, where a van loaded with cooking pots would set up by the side of the road, waiting for a particular group to come past. The centres where pilgrims could be fed - free, by a village community who happened to be on the route - or get checked over by a doctor, or take rest in the shade. Pilgrims of all ages (babes-in-arms to grandmothers), all intent on making the journey.

I couldn't help remembering walking through my own town on Good Friday in a 'walk of witness' a few years back, self-conscious and a little bit fearful of our reception...

Faith in India is normal, part of the everyday, essential...and that was just as evident in the Christian community. There were several things that really stood out for me as challenges to my own faith.

For a start, Christians work together. They are Christian first and foremost; denomination comes second. I saw examples of Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Church of South India Christians working together to build schools, hostels and churches with different communities. How often have I dismissed an action or worship style 'because that's what THEY do', losing sight completely of the core of the faith we share?

Secondly, whatever our view on the Empire and the way the British treated natives of their colonies, at no point did I get the impression that Tamil Christians were forced towards Christian conversion. In every church we visited, whether it had stood for hundreds of years or relatively newly built, there was a list of priests and presbyters to be remembered - because the missionary fathers are looked upon with gratitude for bringing the faith to India.

Right back to the late 1700s...

Memorial to Schwartz, one of the missionary
fathers, in Christ Church - Fort, Tanjore

What you have to understand is that many Christians in India are of the Dalit castes. The untouchables, the criminal castes, those who worked on the land and did the jobs no-one else wanted to do. Officially, there is no caste system in India now, but I saw things which led me to believe that it's not gone from society yet. (And I could write a whole other blog on this subject, so I won't delve into it too much now.) The message that Christianity delivered - that you are loved by God as you are, that all are equal in His sight, that Jesus Christ came to save, combined with the example of the missionary fathers to educate lower castes and work with men of all faiths - was received like water in a desert. Christianity cut through the restrictions of caste and colour and showed how life might be lived instead...

How often do I look back at the people who've helped me to develop my faith and live it out in the world? Not as often as I should.

And the Christian faith is lived in India. I'm not saying it isn't lived here in the UK - I know many whose faith shines from them in their person and their actions - but I'm beginning to think that I could learn a lot from being more visible, more open about my faith. I say 'I'll be thinking of you', when what I mean is 'I'll pray'. But I don't say what I mean for fear of how it might be received. Yet in India, we were asked to pray with groups and clergy and families, rooting our meetings in a relationship with God. Yes, I do pray - in public and private - but I wouldn't dream of going for a coffee with Christian friends and ending our social with a prayer.

Maybe I should.

The last thing which left a deep impression on me was the overwhelming generosity and genuine welcome we received. Food, shawls, gifts, traditional welcomes and blessings, being taken under the wing of the Women's Fellowship to be dressed in sari and have my hand hennaed, being driven miles by the wonderful (and very safe) Michael, being greeted everywhere we went with so many smiles...and being given sugar cane by an elderly woman in a Dalit village, where the diet was so poor the villagers themselves lived on white rice flavoured with spice because they couldn't afford meat or vegetables. I didn't feel as though I deserved any of it.

Bananas over St Mary's, Pudukkottai church door
- a traditional sign of welcome

Being hennaed...and having a go myself

Going native

I looked at myself then, long and hard. How overwhelmingly generous is my God to me? And how often do I really, truly, acknowledge that fact?

Not often enough.  

The other thing I found while I was in India was that it was so much easier to find God. To spend time with Him and feel the presence of the Holy Spirit. That probably had an awful lot to do with not having to look after a family, just myself. Or it might just have been the spirituality of India, which sort of seeps into you and sets your faith connections tingling...

One moment in particular stood out; we visited the Hindu Rock Temple - all hustle and bustle and heat and noise - and then visited the Jesuit church, a most beautiful place. I walked into that church and had an overwhelming sense of peace (in spite of the main road and the usual traffic chaos right outside), of being in the right place, at the right time...and I cried, because I felt immensely blessed to have said yes to a trip that had scared me and pushed me so far out of my comfort zone but felt like it was what God wanted me to do. But it was by no means the only 'moment' I had...

Holy Trinity Church, Valparai - where the lady seated told me
how glad she was to see Western 'missionaries' and how she was
praying for her daughter's marriage...

I can't say that my spirituality has been awakened by the trip - it was already present - but I do feel that I have been challenged in my faith by my experiences. I hope I can rise to the challenge and apply some of the lessons I've learned, so that when I go back again - oh, yes, I'll be going back! - I will be a better Christian than I am at the moment.

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