India has 2,000,000 gods, and worships them all. In religion all other countries are paupers; India is the only millionaire. With her everything is on a giant scale — even her poverty; no other country can show anything to compare with it. And she has been used to wealth on so vast a scale that she has to shorten to single words the expressions describing great sums. –Mark Twain, Following the Equator (1897)
I have now been living in India for almost a year. A YEAR. Take a minute, let that one sink in. A year of my life has been spent living in India. Sure, I traveled other places, but I am a person who has been effectively LIVING in INDIA for a year. Holy. Cow.
This is actually what I see when I walk down the street. In Bombay. The most sophisticated urban oasis in India. Right? You see what I’m working with here?
But more than cows, what I’ve seen more of over the course of this past year are gods. Gods, everywhere.
Today marks the start of Ganesh Chaturthi (it goes on for days, though, it’s rare anything is just one thing here). Technically today is Ganesh’s birthday, which feels a little strange because of the many myths about Ganesh, the majority of them agree that he was shaped out of clay by his mother, Parvati, when her husband Shiva went on one of his walkabouts. Shiva then struck his head off Ganesh’s body when he came back, presumably because he thought Parvati was cheating on him with a new boy toy, and when he realized that this was not in fact the case, grabbed a head off an elephant and put that on the body. No one ever talks about what happens to that elephant, though….
All day there have been parades in the streets, loud bands playing music as people carry sculptures of Ganesh around, setting off fireworks and freaking the hell out of my cat.
Gods are everywhere here. For a secular democracy, this cup overruneth with gods. But what can you really expect? India is excess. If I thought New York was bad, given that when you have a good idea everyone else in the city seems to as well (i.e. that first sunny warm spring day when everyone is in Central Park eating lunch, etc.) But here, it isn’t just that everyone had the same idea, it’s that everyone called their family and everyone they’ve ever met to come with them. And there just isn’t ROOM for all that. So people spill out everywhere, there is humanity oozing out of the city’s every pore.
Which is part of why there ARE gods everywhere. You see, India has this problem (just the one, you ask?) with public urination. Well, I say problem because that’s how I view it but I…might be alone in that. Because you can just see people, and by people I mean men, urinating. Everywhere. God (gods) know I have. It is, apparently, totally socially acceptable to just pee anywhere here, which would make a lot of drunk frat guys happy but does very little for me. Some men try to find a discrete corner, or some shade, but some barely put in any discernible effort, stepping off the road and unzipping right there. I’ve seen more people peeing in public here than I’ve seen well-paved and maintained roads. That should really tell you something…
So anyway, something people do here is that they put images of gods up on their buildings to try to deter potential urinators. I guess in India you can count on reverence before you can bank on social consciousness.
The thing is, though, sometimes they like to play the odds:
So here you’ve got two Hindu deities…
This famous guru.
AND. Because, the more the merrier, right? These guys:
I may not understand much about Hinduism, although I’ve bought a few new books, so I sure keep trying, but the one thing I have started to comprehend is this sense of elasticity, that historically it has bent and twisted and absorbed things into itself, enrobing anything new in its amorphous whole. We live quite close to a Christian neighborhood, and the shrines here look exactly like Hindu ones, with offerings of marigold wreaths and coconuts. See, that’s the thing about polytheism, isn’t it? Everything can be incorporated. Everything can fit into it. When the Portuguese came to India, they intended to convert, and convert they did. But really, can you actually defeat Hinduism? Only one party is fighting a war. The other just accepts everything, making it all part of the same thing.
The struggle, therefore, to explain differentness, or a lack of that feeling that all things are essentially the same and all part of a continuum, can be a challenge. I had a conversation once with a friend, born and brought up in India, where I asked about the gods. Do you have favorites, I asked? Or, really, do your parents have favorites? I’ve met one, maybe two people my age and background in and outside of India who actually feel religiously Hindu, that is, that they invest in and care to unpack and explain. So I ask about their parents. Anyway, I was, unconsciously, treating the gods like trading cards or pop icons, asking which they liked best and why, when he explained that really, his parents just follow this one god. So I asked about that, and he said it’s basically monotheism. So I said, well, do they only believe in one god? No, he said, but they believe in one god most. Doesn’t that count?
So there you go. What do you do with a difference of understanding like that? Hinduism is inclusive, if for me, totally opaque (although I have real hope about these books!) but it doesn’t leave room for you to NOT be a part of it. As in, you are accepted, but not as something separate. Insisting on separatism is a rejection, one that causes conflict. Or at least, confusion. On some level, I know that when I don’t participate in some Hindu holiday, some people know it’s because I’m…not Hindu, but other people really just think I’m being a lax Hindu, like so many of their own children.
But at least I’m getting included.
As I wrote this, my neighbor came over to bless me and give me a coconut she had prayed over. It’s something people apparently do for married women, so that’s why did she did it. She knows that I’m Jewish, she was very impressed by this fact, she teaches Shakespeare tuitions so she, like my mother in law, likes meeting someone she can associate with Shylock (with no negative connotations! India’s tiny Jewish population, which has dwindled with the years, hasn’t left the country with much space for anti-semitism). Still, I got a coconut. Which is very nice, after all, she prayed for health and happiness for the recipient. And, it has eyes. So it can be my new friend now.
It came with leaves and a lime too. Obviously.
I’ll have to look up its meaning in one of my new books.