It was evening in Mumbai and the windows to the Jesuit residence on the fifth floor of the Xavier Institute of Engineering were open to let in a cooling breeze. The sun had set and the last monsoon rain of the day had finished. I sat in a small chapel beside three Jesuits contemplating how I, a Presbyterian university chaplain and ordained woman, ended up celebrating the Feast of St. Ignatius in India with three generous and congenial Catholic priests. Through the open window I heard the chiming of several small handbells, a jaunty drumbeat, and the unified song of many voices chanting a familiar tune. Peeping over the window ledge, I looked down into a small, store-front like shrine to Lord Ganesh, where three dozen Indians sang and celebrated, clapping and singing in the glow from candles being passed before the faithful in large, sweeping circles.
Just as the priest beside me raised his voice to lead our opening prayer, the throaty call of the Adhan – Muslim call to prayer – cut across the chiming and clapping. The Jesuit continued, unperturbed by the spiritual cacophony seeping through the open window. In that moment I was held inside an interfaith bubble, where three faiths sang and celebrated, in and around one another. It was wonderful, and weird.
Experiences like praying in the midst of other religious celebrations were a regular part of my month in India. India is a country of great diversity – geographically, linguistically, culturally, and religiously. It’s a favorite for the spiritually-seeking, and in truth is a land full of wonder. But it wasn’t the exotic taste of spices, or the vibrant tapestry of color at every turn, or even the disconcerting disparity between the rich and poor that is evident on every street corner. What challenged me the most during my month in India was the affront to my Western boundaries between public and private life.
We keep tidying things up in America. We have ordered our private lives – our familial interactions, our interpersonal relationships, our religious and spiritual practices – into the private world. But in India, a country two-thirds the size of the USA but home to more than 1 billion people, there isn’t room for such a division. The public and the private enmesh in a loud ruckus that spills over the strict boundaries of home or temple and into the markets, the parks, and the streets. And I, as a white, Western, Protestant Christian was thrown headlong into this whirling dance of people coming and going, celebrating and mourning, laughing, buying, selling, teaching and living out in public.
Driving from Mumbai to Aurangabad, the van I was in passed half a dozen groups of pilgrims, dressed in orange, and carrying an idol to a holy destination. Some also carried long poles with bunches of leaves and a coconut tied to either end. Others sang chants as they walked. But they walked unperturbed along the street, unflinching in the infamous Mumbai traffic. In Nashik, families ritual bathed in the Godavari river, nearly naked in full view of the passing public. Religious song and dance rang through the air – Hindu chants, Muslim Adhan, Christian hymns. Everywhere what I had been taught were strictly private matters were right out there in public.
This doesn’t mean that religious life in India is perfect. Far from it. But it’s a different way of inhabiting religious and spiritual practice. I too often feel the need to apologize for public displays of my religious practice. Religion, I’ve been taught, is only for the private life. Except, any practitioner of a religious, spiritual, or philosophical tradition can tell you that a life immersed in any tradition is one where that tradition spills over our neatly tucked Western edges. My convictions about feeding the hungry, being a peacemaker, and setting the captive free stem from my religious convictions about the message of Jesus. That private religion overflows into my public actions.
Can we who engage in Interfaith work learn a lesson from India’s vibrant multi-religious landscape? Can we have better public religion? Can we break down the stigmas around the practice of religious and spiritual rituals so that instead of hidden and hushed mysteries they are welcome opportunities for encounter and conversation? And, can we as neat-and-tucked-away Westerns do a better job of recognizing the ways in which our need to privatize things that make us uncomfortable – like religious and spiritual differences – stifles any real progress at dealing with those differences?
India taught me many lessons. Not because India is a magical land of transformation. But, because India is so utterly different that I was shocked into paying attention to all the little things I so often take for granted. I continue to be grateful for the warm welcome that I received as I was a guest in the colorful, diverse, and complex house that is India.
All images courtesy of the author.