Category Archives: Religion

To Feel Something, Deeply…

A few weeks ago I was interviewed by a young woman who was doing research on Hindu/Christian couples for a paper she was working on at the Harvard Divinity School. She had found me through some of my blog postings on negotiating different religious territory for our wedding.

I admit that I am probably not the best “Christian” to interview for such a paper, for even though I was raised in a Catholic home, I don’t really consider myself very Christian. I was upfront about this in the interview, but the interviewer said that it was okay, that it was good to hear a diversity of opinions.

I always mean to write a more in-depth post about my own feelings on religion. I have touched on some here and there, but sometimes I’m afraid of offending more religious readers of this blog. I wouldn’t mean to as I actually find religion a fascinating topic, but sometimes I worry that professing no faith can seem insulting or sad to those that have deep faith.

Yet personally, I’ve never really felt any religious or spiritual stirrings. Perhaps not everyone is struck with a deep religious calling, but I haven’t even felt minor religious or spiritual murmurs. It’s not for a lack of wanting to, or having tried to seek such feelings out. There was a time when I really just wanted to “get” what other people seemed to, without having to try so hard. However it hasn’t happened, and on an intellectual level, at least with the Catholicism that I was raised with, Christianity just never made much sense to me.

So it felt kind of cathartic to talk to this woman about my religious feelings (or lack there of), and how it shaped our multicultural household. As we neared the end of our hour long conversation she asked me if I ever had something close to a spiritual feeling even if I wouldn’t necessarily label it such, and I had to admit there was at least one time.

It sounds like the biggest cliche in the book, but when I signed up to study in India I had been grappling with my complex religious feelings for years. Although the main purpose of my trip was to learn more about South Asia in general, I was hoping that perhaps something in this “spiritual land” (sorry, even I’m cringing as I write that) would speak to me, and that perhaps I’d finally find that missing religious link I’d been searching for.

I didn’t, I came back just as atheist as I was when I departed, but there was one experience that felt inspiring, that did churn something up in my chest.

I pulled out my India journal to see what I had written.

As our program director was a Tibetan monk, our India semester had a special focus on Buddhism, and in addition to learning about Hindu culture and traveling to places like Varanasi, we also traveled to Dharmsala (where the Tibetan government-in-exile and the Dalai Lama reside) and Bodhgaya, the place where Buddha supposedly sat underneath the bodhi tree and meditated until he gained enlightenment.

The town of Bodhgaya is off the regular tourist track, and although you do bump into western tourists, a lot of the visitors are Buddhist pilgrims from around the world, and particularly from Tibet. It wasn’t uncommon to see nomadic Tibetan pilgrims walking down the street looking like they had just stepped out of a National Geographic documentary on life in a yak caravan.

Bodhgaya itself is a bit of a dusty backwater with frequent power cuts, and not much traffic. Around the outskirts of town are various temples from different Buddhist nations, built to reflect each culture’s style and architecture: Vietnam, Burma, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Laos, Thailand, Nepal, Bhutan, etc.

At the center of town is the Mahabodhi Temple, which sits beside the spot where Buddha meditated. A bodhi tree is still in the spot, supposedly the sapling of a sapling of a sapling of the original tree. Around the temple and the tree is a path that pilgrims circumambulate night and day.

Mahabodhi Temple– “front”

Mahabodhi Temple and Bodi tree at night– “back” of temple

This is the passage from my journal:

Tenzin-ji [our program director] says, “You can sleep when you get back to the US” and I have tried to adopt this as my new motto…

For instance… our last morning in Bodhgaya a group of six of us woke up at five in the morning and walked to the Mahabodhi temple to circumambulate for two hours before our thirty minute meditation. We left in the darkness, as the town slept, yet found the temple bustling with activity as we walked around it with many Tibetan pilgrims. A chant was playing over the temple loud speakers, and we walked until the power went off… and then we walked in darkness, feeling our way along the path… until the power kicked back on and the sun slowly rose. The devotion of the pilgrims is awe inspiring… old and young alike were making slow prostrations around the temple… hours of bending up and down in prayer…

After being here and watching activites such as this, I feel like I could do something crazy and seemingly impossible. Like walk across the US, or do anything I set my mind to do. It would almost be a test of wills, just to see if I could do it. Nothing seems impossible anymore.

Your mind does funny things when you test it… like walking around a temple in a continuous circle at 5 in the morning for two hours. It starts to wander… and you think about life… I meditated on my feelings about religion, I thought about my family, and life after college. I tried to release some of the anger that I have kept bottled inside and tried to breath out my frustrations.

This has been good for me, healthy.

It’s easy to let life and routine get in the way of seeking out these really inspirational moments. I don’t know if I really felt something spiritual while walking around the temple, but I definitely felt something deeply that day, and it will be a moment I’ll never forget.

Someday I want to be in South Asia for Holi

I know that the festival of Holi happened a few weeks ago, and I meant to write a post like this at the time, but I was reminded of Holi last night while searching for photos on the internet and figured it was time.

As the title professes, one of these days I would really like to be in either India or Nepal for Holi. I understand and appreciate that there is a religious significance to the festival, so I don’t want to seem disrespectful or  flippant, but there is something that looks so amazingly fun about throwing handfuls of colored powder at each other, regardless of the reason.

I remember once in elementary school someone gave me the idea of putting a spoon or two of flour into an opened  napkin and tying the napkin shut with a piece of string to make a “flour bomb” that “exploded,” sending flour everywhere, when you threw it at someone/something. I made about a dozen, and my sister K and I threw them at each other in the back yard. We were covered in white powder at the end. It was extremely fun, and of course, silly, but I couldn’t replicate it because I got in trouble for wasting flour.

I imagine a full scale Holi is kind of like that, only the flour-like powder is dyed vibrant hues, and the world is covered in rainbows.

P says that in real life (well, in the kid version he remembers) playing Holi can also be kind of brutal. Teenage boys love targeting Western tourists (particularly females) and Holi colors don’t always come in fun handfuls of powder… sometimes they come in buckets of colored water or balloons. There was even a dangerous trend of more mischievous people throwing motor oil in Kathamandu, but I still  like to imagine crowds of happy, friendly people, shrieking in delight and playing tag with fist fulls of beautiful powder.

Actually, P has a “battle wound” from a Holi shenanigan in his youth. One year he was up on the roof of his house, leaning far over the ledge to hit a neighbor girl with a balloon filled with colored water. As he positioned himself for the sneak attack he let the balloon go, but lost his balance and fell off the roof with it! He cracked the side of his head on the path below and started bleeding. As luck would have it, the timing of his accident coincided with a city curfew, and his family couldn’t taken him to the hospital until the following morning. Several stitches later, he still has a bump on his noggin that you can see in the right light if you know where to look.

But I’m not deterred :)

We have played Holi a few times in Massachusetts, although of course a tamer version, at Holi potluck gatherings where fellow party goers gently wipe powder in a streak across each others faces. But much like smearing birthday cake on someone’s face, the real fun is getting a little crazy. I wouldn’t mind coming back from Holi looking like this:

Pictures are from The Telegraph and Boston.com.

Christian Protests in Nepal

About a week or two ago I read an article on the BBC about Christian burial rights in Nepal, and the recent movement by Christians to pressure the government for official burial grounds. In the past, Christians have buried their dead on the grounds of Pashupatinath, the famous Hindu temple and cremation site in Kathmandu. However they are now no longer allowed to do this, and have struggled to find a place to bury their dead.

Then today, the BBC had a photo/audio slideshow about the issue that I thought I would pass along. It is an issue I never really thought about before– having grown up in a Judeo-Christian setting, burial rights have never been a question. I knew that there was a Christian presence in Nepal, particularly after the church bombing in 2009 (where a school friend of P’s younger cousin was killed), but I haven’t followed information about the various Christian communities.

It also makes me wonder where Nepali Muslims bury their dead?

I’m interested to see how this news story concludes…

Sometimes a Church Just Doesn’t Feel Right

Our wedding has made life interesting the past few months. Sometimes I feel like a lot of the preparation has been a giant negotiation. We want everyone to feel included, and we want to make sure we cover the important cultural aspects of each of our “traditions,” but we also want to be true to ourselves. Because of this, I feel it has made planning the American wedding (in particular) all the more… “challenging.”

I come from an Irish Catholic family (on both sides), and even though not every one of my relatives is “religious,” they still have church as an important part of their lives (Baptisms, First Communions, Confirmations, weddings and holidays, if not most Sundays).

On the other side I have really struggled with faith (a WHOLE separate and long blog post), and because of this, church has not been an important part of my life. So when it came time to choose where to get married, I was pretty adamant that I didn’t want to get married in a church by a Catholic priest. I have nothing against that choice for others, but it didn’t feel right for me.

This revelation, as one can imagine, was quite upsetting to some of my family members. At least on my father’s side I am the third eldest cousin and several years ago my eldest cousin decided not to get married in a church, and broke that barrier (while her younger sister did marry in the church), on my mother’s side, I think I’m probably the first one in generations (and generations) not to be married in a Catholic church by a Catholic priest.

I think my grandmother doesn’t get it. I think for her and some of my other relatives it is hard to image what a “white wedding” actually is (or means) without a church and a priest. I’m sure they blame my parents—thinking they “did” something to me to make me turn against my faith, or somehow “raised” me wrong (so I can understand the pressure/criticism they have been under/getting, because of my choices). However it has nothing to do with my parents—again religious musings surely deserve its own post—but ultimately I think my relatives probably felt betrayed.

Here I was, claiming that I wanted to make sure both of our cultures were represented—AND I was willing to get married in a Hindu temple by a Hindu priest (blasphemy!) BUT I was throwing one of my family’s main wedding traditions—Catholicism—out the window. In one phone conversation with my aunt, as I reassured her that we were still doing a lot of American traditions: white dress, wedding rings, vows, first dance, cake, wedding party, etc, she said “If you throw out the priest and church, everything else is just cosmetic.” Ouch.

So I feel I have had to tread carefully when deciding on what details are important to include in the American side of our ceremony/reception and what not to. What battles am I really ready to fight for, and what am I willing to concede because the biggest thing of all—not doing it in a church, was finally hard won (although I think my grandmother is worried about my soul and that I might be going to hell, and thus won’t see me in the afterlife).

And not to confuse the situation further, but the third side of this is that I feel I have little control of what happens in the Nepali wedding—sure there are details to iron out like what to serve at the reception, making playlists of music, organizing a program for those unfamiliar with Hindu weddings, but mostly I am just as much along for the ride as some of the guests. It’s really P and his family that have a say in the Nepali wedding—including what I wear that day, and what traditions are followed, so it makes me all the more adamant to make the American ceremony “my own” in terms of personality and flavor. So there is this constant delicate balance between what I truly would love to have and what others expect, and what is a reasonable compromise between the two.

Anyway, this has colored everything from creating invitations (and insisting that even though it was tradition to include an image of Ganesh on Nepali invites, it was probably more politically correct to omit that detail for now), to what I wear (no I cannot put henna on my hands, even  though I think it would be fun and beautiful–technically it isn’t a Nepali tradition anyway, but a newer trend influenced from India and Bollywood– but none-the-less, because it may, according to my mom, “ruin” the “white wedding” photos, I’m not allowed to do it), to ceremony details… and my next topic—to Ring or Not to Ring.

Swasthani

Last week’s full moon marked the beginning of a new month in the Nepali calendar. One of the rituals of this month is the reading of a book of Hindu mythology called “Swasthani.” As mentioned before—even after 7 years of knowing P, there are always bits of culture that I am picking up along the way—and Swasthani is one such new piece.

I was introduced to Swasthani a few months ago when I saw an English language edition on S-di’s bookshelf. I didn’t know the significance of the book, but asked if I could take it home to read. Inevitably it wound up on my pile of “to read” books, and there it sat.

Then last week P and D were talking about the reading of Swasthani (unusual—since neither ever talk about reading, conversations are more often about soccer, drinking tea, or eating). It piqued my interests.

Apparently in households across Nepal, starting on the full moon during Poush/Magh, families celebrate by sitting together each evening, reading a passage from Swasthani and conducting a puja. P seemed excited about this, recalling memories of sitting with his family reading passages from the book on cold winter evenings. He even found a website where individuals could listen to passages from the book if you don’t have a copy abroad.

As the voracious reader of our family, I was enthusiastically ready to embrace a ritual which involves the family coming together each night to read. I googled Swasthani and realized that the book was the same as the English language book S-di let me borrow months earlier. So I told P, let’s do it.

Each evening for the past few days I’ve been laying a table cloth on the living room floor, lighting a few tea lights, and occasionally an incense stick, gathering a few fruits and a carnation flower. P and I sit on the floor (we even get our dog to sit with us, he is part of the household). P will pass out bits of the carnation flower, open the book and read the first passage (a prayer in Sanskrit), then I’ll take the book, read the story for the day in English, then hand the book back for P to read the closing prayer in Sanskrit. We put the carnation pieces in the book and the petals each day are pressed between the pages. Later on we make smoothies out of the puja fruit to drink with dinner.

I enjoy it, because I like hearing stories, many of which I have not heard before. P enjoys it because it reminds him of reading the stories back home. He even knows the prayers to say at the beginning and end of the readings by heart, something I’ve never seen him do before.

The English copy that I have only has 22 stories, in abbreviated form, whereas the Nepali versions from P’s childhood have 31 readings and are usually much longer and more detailed. If anyone is interested in reading the stories, let me know, I’ve scanned them into a pdf format and can email them out (since the book is not available in the US).

Here is information on the stories from the publisher (Spiny Babbler):

For those interested in Eastern culture, Swasthani is essential reading. There is, perhaps, no other document like it on the entire Indian sub-continent. The Swasthani stories, some of which may be 1,200 years old, will tell you more than the most pedantious text book about how many Nepalese people perceive the universe, their religion, and their deities.

Definitely, the Swasthani scriptures do more to shape the cultural fabric of the Nepal Himalaya than the Ramayana or the Mahabharata. The stories of creation, the stories of the great Lords Brahma, Bishnu, and Shiva created by one God, the way of life in the Himalaya are all in this single slim volume.

For every traveler, every scholar, every person interested in Oriental religions, cultures, and people, the Swasthani scriptures are a must read. Every year, Swasthani is read aloud in thousands of Nepalese homes. This is a simple yet exquisite presentation of Swasthani stories by Pallav Ranjan, a writer, according to one critic, who can capture the “fog’s moisture and the light of a million fireflies” with his words.

Beautifully adapted stories, 25 full-page Swasthani related paintings, a chart outlining God’s creations, and a map of sites that you can visit after reading the scriptures, this may be the most comprehensive and enjoyable guide to Nepalese culture that you will find.

Dashain Articles

A few people (thanks AS and P) sent me articles today from the Nepali online journal Republica that I wanted to share:

The first is called “Nava Durga: Nine incarnations of the Mighty Devi Durga” and discusses the different incarnations of Durga (the power goddess) that are worshiped on different days of Dashain.

The second article was on Dashain tikkas and why some communities use red versus white or black.

(From the Republica article on Tikka): This picture illustrates to those who have never seen or participated in a Dashain tikka giving what it looks like. An older member of your family/community gives tikka and blessing to younger people. Note the jamara grass tucked behind the father's ear.

In the “white tikka” section of the article it discusses how different ethnic communities sometimes choose to use different colored tikkas to differentiate themselves and their practices, since historically red vermillion was not readily available outside of the KTM valley, and tikkas were created with butter (potentially influenced by Tibet), or curd and rice. Also the article gives the example of the Limbu people, whose participation in Dashain can only be traced back to Rana Bahadur Shah’s reign. This reminded me of a story that M-dai told me a while back.

M-dai is from the Sunwar ethnic group traditionally from the mountains in the Solokhumbu region of Nepal. Many of the mountain people were not traditionally (and many still are not) Hindu, but Buddhist or animist/shamanistic. When Nepal became unified under a king, and the country was declared a Hindu kingdom, advisors of the king were sent to the more remote areas of Nepal to enforce Hinduization. M-dai said his grandfather’s grandfathers used to have to show that they sacrificed a goat for Dashain to prove their participation in the Hindu festival and their adherence to the king. For some families celebration of this festival may have stuck, but not for all.

Which leads me into the final article: “Commentary: On Not Celebrating Dashain.” Even though to me Dashain feels more cultural than spiritual, it is important to remember that the festival– much like Christmas (regardless of how secular and commercial it might seem to some) in the US– is not celebrated by everyone. This article is from the perspective of a Nepali who is not Hindu, and thus doesn’t celebrate.

I hope you don’t mind all the posts on Dashain… it’s just on my brain as of late. Thought others might find these interesting….

Kumari and Indra Jatra

Yesterday was Indra Jatra. I know this only because I like to look at BBC’s “in pictures” each day and there was a photo from Kathmandu depicting the ceremony.

From BBC "In Pictures"

I don’t know much about Indra Jatra (so I’ll look up some information to share) but the festival caught my attention because I’ve been reading up on Kumari (or the “living goddesses” from Nepal). I find their stories fascinating and was thinking of writing about them for my writer’s group. Indra Jatra is one of the festivals that kumaris participate in.

Basically Kumari are little girls chosen from a specific Buddhist Newar ethnic group (Shakya) in Nepal who become the embodiment of the Hindu goddess Taleju (which is an avatar of power goddess Durga). Much like the Dalai Lama or Pachen Lama, the girls are a reincarnation of the goddess, and are chosen based on specific attributes such as “a neck like a conch shell,” “a body like a banyan tree”, “eyelashes like a cow,” “chest like a lion” and have to pass a test to prove that she is the goddess. Supposedly one such test comes during Dashain (coming in October), when the young goddess has to spend the night in a temple with 108 sacrificed goats and buffalos. Since Durga is strong and fearless, the Kumari candidate must also show no fear.

Various photos of Kumari in full regalia including headdress, full tikka, and naga (snake) necklace. Kumari are not allowed to touch the ground, so they are carried or ride in chariots when they have to go outside for religious functions

Girls are chosen very young (usually when they are only a few years old) and live out their childhood in a temple away from their families. They are worshiped and often sought for guidance, and I believe the Royal Kumari of Bhaktapur gives a tikka to the king of Nepal during Dashain as a blessing (at least, back when there was a king). Tradition holds that if a king does not receive tikka from the Kumari at this time, something horrible will happen. I remember reading somewhere (although now I can’t find the link) that supposedly when the former King Birendra went to take tikka from the Royal Kumari the Dashain before the Royal Massacre (June 2001), she cried (or something like that) which denotes a bad omen. Less than a year later ten members of the royal family including the King, Queen, two princes and the princess were dead.

The Kumari remains a goddess until her first menstruation, at which point the spirit of the goddess leaves her body to inhabit someone else, and she again becomes a mere mortal. Image the confusion for the poor child—having spent the formative years of her life worshiped and treated to every desire only to reach adolescence and be tossed back to her family (which at this point she hardly knows) and be treated like a regular person again.

BBC "In pictures" from today... girls dressed like Kumari dance in the street (although they are not real Kumari)

Another BBC "In Pictures"... a (real) Kumari peeks outside her temple window at the Indra Jatra festival

If you want to learn more about the Kumari I recommend watching the documentary “The Living Goddess” (watch trailer HERE), it is currently streaming on Netflix. Interestingly, when the documentary came out, the Kumari featured traveled to the US for the premiere, and she was temporarily “fired” from her role as Kumari because she became “unclean” from traveling abroad.  A purification ritual was performed before she could be reinstated.

So back to Indra Jatra—Indra is the god of rain and the festival is celebrated for eight days in the Kathmandu Valley mostly near Hanuman Dhoka. Classical dancers assemble in the square wearing different traditional masks and costumes to celebrate Indra’s visit. On the third day the Kumari is brought to the square in a chariot procession to watch over the ceremonies.

Pictures of Indra Jatra dancers