Michelle’s Miracle in India
Two weeks ago, I (along with my homestay families) witnessed a minor miracle.
I ran into my homestay sister, Chandni, and another girl from my program just as they were running out the door. Apparently Chandni had gotten a call from her mother, who was in the neighborhood at a puja, a Hindu religious ritual, telling her that a picture had started sweating holy water. Of course, we all had to go check it out.
We entered the house where the ceremony was being held. We saw a group of people in the chandelier-bedecked white room sitting on a rug in front of a large picture of a smiling man placed on a wooden swing and dripping with white fabric, pearls, and glittering stones. A heavily embellished chair was placed to the right of this picture, and flowers ringed the whole set-up, with candles and flower petals strewn on the floor. We were directed to go to the front of the picture and bow with our foreheads to the floor. After that, a man with near-perfect English led us into a bedroom off the main room to show us a picture of that same smiling man, only much smaller and with four rivulets of condensed water apparent beneath the glass.
The smiling man in the picture is called Guru-ji, and he was explained to us as a real person who died in 2007 who had the ability to link others to God. Because of his abilities, people worshipped him above God, since it was only through him that they could attain a divine connection. What had happened was that Sunday morning, the father of the house woke up saying that Guru-ji had told him in a dream that he was present in the house and that he had to look for pictures of him. The family knew that Guru-ji shows his presence by making one of his pictures produce water, so the family members began to tear apart the house, finally locating the sweating picture in a back room where they store their food.
After examining the picture, we joined the rest of the group in the main room where they were all (unfortunately, I don’t speak much Hindi—yet!) sharing their stories of being helped or cured by Guru-ji. We all received prasad, sweets that one gets at a temple as a blessing from the gods in exchange for offering oneself to him/her/them. As the discussion progressed, Chandni began to ask questions (mercifully for me, in English). She questioned how they knew it was really Guru-ji who was helping them, and how people who did not even know about Guru-ji could be helped by him.
What I noticed was that the rhetoric for believing in Guru-ji was much the same as the rhetoric for believing in any Christian religion: you just have to have faith. However, Guru-ji was expected to provide proof of his powers because, in the words of a man at the ceremony, “How can we believe in a God that does nothing for us?”
Is that symptomatic of Hinduism’s polytheistic worldview? Does the fact that Hindus have multiple gods to choose from mean that a god has to prove himself in order to get followers? In all my lapsed Catholic experience (and I assure you, it’s not much), I don’t think I ever heard that sentence come out of a Christian’s mouth.
In general though, my admittedly limited experience with religion in India has been one of glitter and immediacy. I’ve been to a grand total of two temples, and both were dripping with sparkle, crowded with intricate statues of gods, and bursting with color to which my poor photography can’t do justice. Even the small neighborhood temples I’ve seen seem magnificent compared to the Catholic churches in my hometown.
I’ve also been a part of a puja to Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, organized by the program to give us luck this coming semester. The ceremony was on the roof of the center, and a big picture of Saraswati, laden with fruit and flowers, was brought along with a fire pit and mounds of spices.
This brings me to my other observation: the lines between public life, private life, and religious life seem so thin here. This elaborate (at least to me) ceremony to Saraswati, in which we threw spices into the fire pit, offered up flower petals, and received red string around our wrists, all took place at the same location where we ate lunch. When we walked into the ceremony for Guru-ji, we walked past two kids watching cartoons on a bed before we reached the shrine, and the house doubled as a place of worship and a home. The sweating picture was displayed in a bedroom.
Looking around, you can see small temples everywhere, gods displayed in almost every car and rickshaw, and people throwing flower petals at statues on the side of the road. Not to mention the nonchalance people showed toward Guru-ji’s picture producing water. If something like that had happened at one of my local churches in New Jersey, it probably would have at least made The Independent Press, if not national news; but here, people didn’t even seem to be that taken aback.
Compared to my experience with the isolation of Christianity in America (granted, New Jersey is not exactly in the Bible belt), religion in India doesn’t seem to have to take place in a church or a special building away from daily life. It’s in living rooms, next to sidewalks, and above rickshaw drivers’ heads. And, if you’re lucky, it’s in miracle pictures dripping water in the pantry.