Saturday, November 04, 2006

Divine Communication

In India there is a whole genre of comedy around fake swamis and other religious impostors. As long as people remain in need of a conduit to heaven their tribe will flourish. The story about unread letters written to God washed up to the New Jersey shore is reminiscent in some ways of the Indian experience with the Hindu religious establishment which derives both its strength and weakness in its lack of formal organization.

The Kaligath Temple in Calcutta (somehow the new nomenclature Kolkata does not roll off the keyboard easily) is within walking distance of my grandmother's home. My wish to go there was granted at about twelve years old. The significance of the event had not dawned on me until I realized that my father and uncle would be accompanying me. Grandmother was peeved that her other son was not going to be able to make it and it would just be two males going with me.

I was not sure why such a big entourage was needed for a visit to the temple that I had requested specially since the males in question were hardly the temple going kind. I was warned about the crowds and the how the place was crawling with men of malafide intent. The word molestation was mentioned a few times. I was no longer sure we were all talking about the Kaligath Temple, one of the most important religious destinations for a Hindu.

Even all the preparation had not prepared me for the crowds. The three of us stood in line with me in between my father and uncle forming a human shield against the rising tide of human bodies. I saw my grandmother's point about my absent uncle - he would have served as the lookout to deal with any miscreants who gained access to me where the shield fell short.

My desire for religious edification had turned out be a trial by fire for the rest of the family. As we wound our way into the sanctum sanctorum, human bodies crushed and churned together like food being pulped. Despite the best efforts to protect me, I was groped and touched. The priests and their cohorts heckled people to pay for their services as the intermediaries to God and stood guard over the shrine like Cerberus at the entrance to Hades.

For years after this experience, I thought about why it was significant for me and thousands of others to visit temples like Kalighat, deal with the atrocities of the temple priests and their many ancillaries who recycle flowers that once adorned dead bodies, prasad and tokens of consecration from the devotees.

We allow them to make a mockery of the religion and faith that they purport to uphold when we let ourselves believe that the doorway to heaven leads through a certain temple, a set of incantations that only a priest can perform or in letters written to God that a pastor has some divine way of communicating to their destination.

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