The Life of Hinduism brings together a series of essays-many recognized as classics in the field- that present Hinduism as a vibrant, truly ‘lived religion. Celebrating the diversity for which Hinduism is known, this volume beings its journey in the ‘new India’ of Bangalore, India’s Silicon Valley, where global connections and local traditions rub shoulders daily. Readers are then offered a glimpse into the multifaceted world of Hindu worship, life-cycle rites, festivals, performances, gurus and castes. The book’s final sections deal with issues of identity that Hindus face in India around the world: militancy versus tolerance and the struggle between one’s own religion and sharing it with others.
JOHN STRATTION HAWLEY is Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Religion at Barnard College. He is the editor of Saints and Virtues and Devi: Goddesses of India, among other books.
VASUDHA NARAYANA is Professor at the University of Florida. Her books include The Tamil Veda: Pillan’s Interpretation of the Tiruvaymoli and The Vernacular Veda: Revelation, Recitation and Ritual.
BANGALORE AND BEYOND
January I, 2004, was a happy day for India's surging middle classes. For the first time in history the Sensex, which measures investments on the Bombay stock exchange, was hovering on the verge of 6,000. Reports issued on that day confirmed that the country's GNP had risen 8.4 percent in the year just past, and the news sent the stock exchange over 6,000 as soon as it opened on the second. Nowhere could the mood of optimism be felt more palpably than in Bangalore, the graceful southern city on the Deccan plateau that serves as capital of India's information technology industry, Bands of young revelers roamed through the streets on New Year's Eve, people ate out, fireworks lit the sky, and there were plenty of parties throbbing with the latest mix of Bollywood hits and Western rap riffs.
Had religion been forgotten in this thrust toward a global future? Not at all. For many years Bangalore’s Christian communities had marked the shift from old year to new with masses and services at midnight, and this year was no exception. Muslims observed the evening call to prayer. Yet nothing could compare with the vast crowds of people who filled the city's Hindu temples the following morning. Many sought the blessing of Hanuman, the monkey deity whose strength and unwavering devotion to Rama and Sita had earned him his own prominent place in the pantheon. They filed before his massive, twenty-two-foot granite form in Bangalore's Mahalakshmipuram neighborhood, echoing his devotion with devotion of their own (see figure I). As they watched, a little gondola made its transit across a high metal scaffolding so that priests could deck the deity with jewels and garlands. The widespread worship of Hanuman, especially in monumental representations such as this, is one of the most striking developments in Hindu practice over the past several decades. Sure enough, Bangalore's Hanuman was carved out of a huge slab of stone only in 1976. The rock, standing erect like a sentinel on an empty hill, had long been venerated, almost as if it had been waiting for its inner identity to be revealed-as part and parcel of the new Bangalore. In similar fashion, many people think Bangalore itself is a harbinger of the India yet to be. (See figure A at the Website / users/ vasu/loh.)
Hanuman's crowds were substantial, but they were dwarfed by those that pressed in on another temple in the neighborhood. This was the "temple on a hill," inaugurated in 1997 by ISKCO ,the International Society for Krsna Consciousness, the organization popularly known in the West as the Hare Krishna movement. ISKCON traces its lineage to the Bengali ecstatic Chaitanya (ca. 1500), whose full name, Krishna Chaitanya, means "consciousness of Krishna." ISKCON insists it is also heir to a Vedic past that stands at the horizon of humankind's historical memory. But ISKCON's own founding event transpired only much later, when a Calcutta businessman named Abhay Charan De, soon to be called Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, landed on the Lower East Side of New York City in 1965 and began to dance and sing. In those days of spiritual searching and disaffection with the Vietnam War, he quickly attracted a following; ISKCON was incorporated as a storefront mission near Tompkins Square Park within a year. Coincidentally, this was also the time when American immigration laws were revised, and substantial numbers of highly educated Indians began settling in the United States. ISKCO temples in New York and elsewhere quickly became shared East/West space: where else could the new immigrants gather to see the images and sing the songs that pro-vide so much of the vocabulary of Hindu life?
Prabhupada thought the movement ought to be not just east-to-west but west-to- east, and in that regard the temple on "Hare Krishna Hill" in Bangalore is one of his followers' most impressive accomplishments. Its upscale patrons are definitely local-they've had to fight off denominational leaders based elsewhere in India to protect their autonomy-but their inspiration is global. It shows in their ahead-of-the-curve architecture and Web site (www.iskconbangalore.org) and in the elaborate crowd-control systems that funnel visitors toward an auspicious vision of Krishna and his beloved consort Radha deep in the sparkling marble South Indian-style temple. A maze of metal bars and covered aerial walkways guides worshippers up toward the main sanctuary as if they were visitors to the Statue of Liberty or Walt Disney World; and a long series of displays, eateries, and gift shops awaits them on the descent, after they've seen the golden deities. These eager, well-dressed pilgrims are a collage of Bangalore today: students in the nearby science colleges, middle-class families with children, and a few representatives of the older generation. All come to orient themselves to the year ahead with vows, petitions, and thanksgivings expressed before the city's newest, most impressive gods. Hindu practice already incorporates several New Years, and many Hindus calculate the fiscal year on those days, with festivals to mark the passage. January I has been added only in the last decade, a New Year calibrated to the calendar of international business and global society. For Hinduism, the meaning of "tradition" is cumulative, not un-changing. (See figure B at the Web site /users/vasu/loh.)
Other events in the first week of 2004 filled out this picture. A full-page color ad on the back page of the New Year's Day Bangalore edition of the Economic Times, for instance, urged readers to contribute to projects launched by the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD). TTD is the organization that manages India's wealthiest and most influential temple complex (devasthanam), the home of Vishnu as Venkatesvara at Tirupati on "the holy mountain" (tirumalai) in Andhra Pradesh. Its current projects feature a hospital offering free medical care to the poor, a fund for the protection of cows ("The very existence of mankind depends on cow's milk," said the Economic Times), and a religious theme park to be installed on Tirupati's mountain with the purpose of educating pilgrims "through modern Imax technics." The ad explaining all this had been donated by Amarjothi Spinning Mills, Ltd., and it contained multiple images of Venkatesvara himself, displaying a vision (darsana, darsan, darshan) of Venkatesvara to the public at large on this auspicious day of beginnings. Halfway around the world, in the Venkatesvara temple that TTD helped establish just outside Pittsburgh, pilgrims from all over North America gathered for a similar darshan. Lord Venkatesvara graces both continents, and many who come to see him in Pittsburgh have relatives in or near Bangalore.
The Economic Times also reported that Pramukh Swami Maharaj, the leader of the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha, was in Bangalore to officiate at the installation of new images in the Swaminarayan temple in Rajajinagar Industrial Town.? Like ISKCON and Tirupati, Swaminarayan is a religious organization with a densely multinational identity. Based in Gujarat and working with a distinctly Gujarati core of devotees, it nonetheless strives to create a form of high-minded Hindu consciousness with global appeal. Bangalore is necessarily an important node in Swami narayan's emerging network. A major feature of Swaminarayan faith is its adherence to ahimsa, nonviolence, and Pramukh Swami made history in September 2002 when he urged his followers not to take vengeance on Muslim militants who killed thirty-two people and injured scores more in an attack on Swaminarayan's most important monument, the sparkling new temple and religious theme park called Akshardham, just outside Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat. People listened: not a single Muslim life was lost.
This presented a stunning contrast to the many Muslims killed-and many more rendered homeless and indigent-in a campaign condoned and supported by the Gujarat state government earlier the same year. The party in power was the Hindu revivalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is particularly strong in Gujarat, and the mobs marshaled by the party and its ideological confreres were avenging an attack on a train filled with Hindu nationalists that made a stop in the city of Godhra, Gujarat, on February I9. Fifty-eight people died in a fire that swept through one bogie of that train while it stood in Godhra station. Most early reports said a Muslim mob on the platform had torched the bogie as a Hindu-Muslim argument escalated out of control. The Hindu activists on the train had been returning from the fervor of a rally in Ayodhya, the city in North India that is widely regarded as the birthplace of the god-king Rama. They were trying to pressure the government to remove obstacles standing in the way of the construction of a massive temple on the spot believed to be the place where Rama was born, the very spot where carefully organized cadres of young Hindus had destroyed a sixteenth-century mosque in I992. A great many Muslims-and a few Hindus-had been killed in rampages that followed that attack, too.
But it's far from certain that Muslims really did torch the train in Godhra in response to insults from Hindu-chauvinist pilgrims. Early investigations reported that the fire actually started at a particular seat inside the bogie-possibly ignited by a kerosene burner. Hindus claiming to have seen things with their own eyes rejected those conclusions. As for Pramukh Swami, he didn't care how that issue or any other in this long chain of violence would be adjudicated. He just said it was time to stop, and the weight of his authority was such that people paid attention. Now he was in Bangalore on a much happier mission.
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