I live for taxi rides in New York City, but they cannot compare to rickshaw rides in Madurai! Swerving passed cars, trucks, motorcycles, oxen, yoked oxen, goats, chickens, dogs, and people while trying to figure out which side of the road you should drive on was one of the most exhilarating feelings that I have ever experienced. I was purely caught in the hustle and bustle of the Indian landscape and my mind was overwhelmed by the vibrant colors of posters and billboards, anticipatory shouts of merchants, noises of playful children, varied expressions of pure happiness and struggle, and the newness of it all. These thoughts raced in my mind along with the simple realization that I was, in fact, in a place that revealed plurality in its finest form.
As the driver effortlessly avoided the many traveling animals that were in the road, he turned into where I would be living for much of the trip: the Tamilnadu Theological Seminary. The trees in the entranceway enveloped and stared down the dirt road almost welcoming me to this resort-like place. I did not believe that I would be living and breathing in a location as tranquil, peaceful, and mystical as I sensed it to be. It was its own microcosm; everyone relied on each other to sustain the organism: what a beautiful web of interconnectivity, indeed!
At first glance, the busyness of the city and the quietness of the seminary appeared to be in stark opposition to one another, but they were not: they were one in the same in a beautiful union. The city and the seminary were alive and breathing; it is as if they had a heartbeat of their own. But what was real? What was India? I later had a conversation with a British professor and he, more sophisticatedly than I, explained all that I have attempted to write. I asked him if India was here in the seminary or outside in the city. He simply laughed, smiled and said, "That is the real question, my boy."
My travels in India and studying religion from a multicultural context have even more affirmed my passion for interfaith work and the promotion of plurality and inclusivity. There is a tremendous metaphor in Hinduism that first introduces a grand mountain. On each side of the mountain there are different terrains. Now, substitute these terrains for different religions: there are varied ritualistic beliefs, ways of worship, customs, names, etc. As each of these religions travel from the base of the mountain to its peak, all paths converge leading to that same ultimate reality.
India has taught me that there are endless paths to reach the same destination. Hindus believe in many deities, but ultimately and regardless of the deity they choose to worship, they believe that they will be lead to the same truth. To this point, Hindus believe that they are worshipping the manifestation of the deity in the specific image that they are performing the puja, or religious ritual, to. It is not as if each Hindu believes that the image is the deity because most understand that divine power is greater than any one physical figure; divinity is present anywhere in the world and at any time.
Accordingly, Hinduism teaches that in order for humankind to reach the mountain of plurality, they must brush off the human dross that obscures their eternal light. Imagine a vibrant light. The color and glow that it emits is glorious. Now imagine if that light has dust, decay, and debris on it. The light is still there, yet it is obscured. Hindu mystics teach that we all have this eternal light inside of us, but because of materialistic possessions, greed, lust, exclusivity, etc. the light is dimmed. We must remove each layer in order to gain clarity. In viewing interfaith cooperation, these layers, or barriers, prohibit building bridges of inclusivity.
In Kottayam, which is a city in the state of Kerala, I was asked if I wanted to enter a local temple. Of course, I obliged and took off my shoes and proceeded inside, anxiously anticipating what wonders would be revealed. It is important to briefly note that while in any Hindu temple, only Hindus are allowed in the innermost sanctuary because the deity remains in the inner sanctum. To this day, I am still unsure how I was granted access into the inner sanctuary, as a non-Hindu, but I did not question it as I took off my shirt and entered the holy space.
There was something primal about standing with my shirt and shoes off, hands clasped together in prayer, while making darshan. Darshan is a difficult word to define because it is an event that occurs in the consciousness of being and differs from person to person. Perhaps one of the best explanations is that it is a sense of seeing and being seen by the divine.
I will not attempt to describe how I felt while making darshan with Shiva. I will only comment on how it was a feeling that we are not alone. I am not talking about imaginary craziness or wishful thinking, but that every living being is connected. Through my experience traveling and living in new cultures, while also studying in an academic setting, I found that many non-believers, westerners, and scholars find it difficult to feel connected to the other.
I offer this advice: go out into the world and experience it for yourself! No classroom setting can compare to life experiences. While books and other works are insightful, they prohibit peering into the eyes of the other being, hearing them speak, capturing their emotions, smelling their aromas, walking on their soil, and simply living in their world.