((Back to school now, but the holidays were good to me. I made sort of a grand harrumphing trip across the subcontinent: first to Delhi, then to Lucknow, then Jaipur, and then all the way to Sri Lanka in about ten days, sari mostly intact. I had some real enchiladas, failed horribly at getting on an elephant, got sunburned again, and overall had an amazing time with incredible people who make my sides hurt from laughing so hard. Pictures will follow at the end of this blog.))
In Chennai, to get somewhere, you have to have a landmark. Addresses are not enough, especially since the house numbers have been recalibrated about four times in the last ten years. For my roommates and I to get to our house, we say “Naradha Gana Sabha,” or “Alwarpet Post Office.” Sometimes the landmark will take you exactly where you need to go– “Chola Sheraton” gets us directly across the street from our favorite restaurant– but oftentimes the place you’re trying to go is some blocks away from the landmark. You just kind of stick to the point and then wander until you find it. For me to get to school, if the automan doesn’t know where Pycrofts Garden is, I tell him “Thousand Lights.” The name comes from the tradition that a thousand and one lamps used to light the roads to the mosque there so that anyone who needed to find it could get there. The lamps aren’t lit anymore except for festivals, but the name remains.
I think there are landmarks in life, too. Little route markers that tell you, “Hey! You’re almost to where you need to be!” As a literature person, this always comes to me in quotes or phrases that keep recurring or hit right when I need them to. Right before I got on the plane to India, I remember sitting in an airport and reading this 1577 prayer by Sir Francis Drake:
I’ve always been amazed at language, how people can take the same 26 letters, shape, and reshape them. How it transcends time–how a sixteenth century theologian’s prayer can hit me on my iPhone five hundred years later. And how differently language lives! For someone who spent most of high school Spanish singing “Gasolina” over and over again, I’ve become enamored with learning bits and pieces of new ones, seeing their personalities. Tamil is like scraping your thoughts off the sides of your mouth; Hindi feels like laughing. Sinhala crawls across signs like cats curled up lazily beside each other. Arabic sounds like rain. In Tamil, the word for water is “thannee.” In Hindi, “pani.” If I ask you for a glass of “pani,” when all you know is “thannee,” that leap isn’t hard to make. But if I ask for “thannee” and all you know is “water,” there is a moment of cognition where you listen, realize that I am asking for the same thing, and accept it as correct. You hand me a glass of water.
Why, in America, at least in my experience living in the Bible belt, do we not do that with religion? Instead we place a dichotomy of right and wrong, when it should be right and also right. In our own efforts to build a new earth, we have allowed our vision of Heaven to dim; instead of allowing love and acceptance to grow, we shut it down when it becomes uncomfortable for us to fit into our own vision of truth. Before I got on that plane, I had become so comfortable in my understanding of God, in my own definition of who and what He was and wasn’t. I hardly recognize the person I was before, the college senior who was so comfortable waking up at noon with bobby pins in her hair from the night before, who spat fire about the power of education but sat in the back of her last required business course taking Buzzfeed quizzes instead of listening, who wanted to claim herself humble and philanthropic while seriously considering two hundred dollar eyelash extensions. That doesn’t feel like me, and when I see those things laid out, I realize I kind of sucked most of the time. Like all seniors do, I had become so confident, so comfortable in the purple town around me, and engrossed in the act of leaving it slowly, in degrees. Collecting moments in a way that suited me– too well-pleased with myself and my own personal brand of God–, like twenty-two years of earth-walking qualified me to put parameters on the infinite, and leaving the ones that didn’t fit into my way of living. I’d become like the name of Thousand Lights; the name, not the action, of Christian. The thought, not the actuality, of love.
The question in India seems not to be if God exists, but rather how, in categories that usually overlap, in a world that is somehow broader than any of the ones I’d known before. Here there is no room for the if. Religion to me is language, vocabularies built in search of peace and love, all connected to the same fundamental belief of wanting to serve others and serve God, in any of the names we give Him– the thousand names for Shiva, a hundred for Allah, and the seven billion understandings of each of them. Christianity is still the vocabulary that makes the most sense to me– that a Son of God would sacrifice himself to save the world, including myself. Perhaps this is the selfishness that remains: the notion that somehow I am worthy of being saved, that I need to put some sort of label on God to make Him comprehensible, that I need to contextualize him with my own upbringing.
But even with this vocabulary, things do not always make sense to me: How can we as Christians claim a holy book more infallible than the rest when we can’t decide as a faith which version the correct Bible is? How can I deign to be off-put by the rooms full of gemstone donations to Buddha at the Gangaramayana when our own churches wink with gold? How can a political party of Christians call Islam a religion of hate when I have known churches exponentially more hateful? How can someone tell me that they do not understand the “idols and deities” in the Hindu canon, but then tell me to pray to St. Anthony when I lose my keys? How can a headline scream that the hijab is oppressive toward women when Leviticus tells me I can’t leave my house when I’m on my period or my husband when he hurts me? Believing and practicing one thing does not give me permission to foster hate towards another, especially when the doctrine commands everything I do be done in love. Simply because I am Christian does not mean I cannot still feel blessed by the holy fire that circles my head at a Hindu temple, or in reflecting in the Buddhist temple on the lake; when a child in Delhi asks me to kneel beside her at mosque, that does not mean I cannot pray. For these experiences to be exclusive in name does not make sense to me. Because all of these things are done in love, I see no reason for me to consider them wrong.
Here, surrounded by religions that some people call “wrong,” I feel the most right I have in a while, becoming more vulnerable, more susceptible to catching the landmarks from unexpected places. The moment when I sat alone in a Baha’i temple in Delhi, that giant skillet of a city, feeling the hum of music wrap itself around me and ring through the hollow of my ribcage. The Jaipur rooftop night we spent with a woman we had maybe two broken Hinglish sentences in common with, who clutched my hand and called me “behen.” The feeling of going headfirst into a foreign ocean and never finding where my feet touch the bottom. Sitting on a stranger’s patio in Sri Lanka in a nightgown as the monsoon crashed down. I’m not always sure how these moments relate to where I need to be, but I know they’re close.
After three months, these are landmarks that have come. This much I know: I am here, with grateful heart, cast miles from the shore. Just watching the horizon for a thousand lights, flickering.
i thank You God for most this amazing by e e cummings
i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)