Saturday, January 7, 2012

Back a couple of days

So we've been in such a whirlwind that it's been hard to find the time to describe everything, and now I will go back to I guess it was Wednesday or Thursday to describe a few things. We saw this wonderful site, Auroville, on Wednesday, as part of our "three faces of Hinduism" day. It was a community founded by someone called The Mother, the spiritual consort of a daring young Indian nationalist, Sri Aurobindo, who took refuge in French Pondichery sometime in the first half of the 20th century and left politics, more or less, for a contemplative ascetic, spiritual life. Long after he died, The Mother set out to found a city for their followers, and received land to do so in the late 1960s, with many Indians as well as westerners who, in the words of one of the foremost ecological planners (a gardener he calls himself) of the community, "wandered out of the '60s". By the late 1990s they had completed the central institution of the community, seen here.

I don't know if you can tell, but it's pretty gi-normous. I was impressed the first time I ever saw "The Egg" in Albany (which was, incidentally, when I went to see TMBG play there). This structure beats The Egg like it's making meringue. The whole community seems impressively organized and progressive, especially ecologically. It claims not to be a religion, though in some ways it seems born, at least, of a kind of Hinduism. To increase the Brazil-India parallels (which, as it turns out, for me at least seem confined to South India--more on that in a later post), it totally reminded me of a much more organized analog (with totally different religious roots, though, of course) of the Vale do Amanhecer in central Brazil, which I visited in 2003. Both have an element to them that some might call "wacky," and if that word could be excised of negative connotation, I probably would use it as well (although I should say, I saw no Egyptian head-dresses or ancient Phoenician rituals in Auroville--in fact, nothing like them). The other difference is that, as opposed to all the other Brazil-India distinctions I've noticed thus far, the Aurovilleans really seem to know what they're about, as far as organization, orderliness, while the community at the Vale do Amanhecer seems much more disordered and haphazard in its layout, practices, timeliness, commercial aspects, etc.

I don't have good pictures for the second two types of Hinduism whose sites we visited, but the second one was the most impressive and moving. It was a very old temple dedicated to a god that I guess was a combination of Aiyanur, a local deity in that area of Tamil Nadu, and Ayyappan, a sort of mainstream god in Hinduism who is the son of Lord Shiva (an extremely virile god, it seems) and Vishnu. Vishnu, we should remind ourselves, is normally a male deity, and perhaps we might be doubly impressed by Shiva's virility in being able to father Ayyappan with a male counterpart, but Vishnu in this instance was taking on a female form, Mohini, in order to help defeat a demon whom Shiva had hot-headedly granted the ability to turn anyone into ashes with his thumb. Clever Mohini outwitted the demon by demanding he wash himself before she allowed him to take her, and in the end, she tricked him into turning himself to ashes. After this, Shiva & Mohini produced Ayyappan, or Aiyanur (perhaps someone will correct my telling of the story). In any case, the temple we went to was in a sacred grove that was Ayyappan's birthplace, and we went deep into its inner sanctum, a cave-like (even womb-like place, by design in most Hindu temples as we learned from Padma Kaimal, one of our leaders) were blessed in our families and in our work by the priest in pooja, the main ritual, apparently, in Hindu temple practice, which involves the blessing of a flame and a priest rubbing some colored ash on the forehead.

The last temple visit was brief (partly because we were all starting to flag), and seemed a much more modernized style of Hinduism--it was a temple to the saintly Sai Baba, a sage who recently died. This seemed much more like visiting a working church somewhere in America, with flooring and lighting and construction all vaguely reminiscent of contemporary places of worship I've been in in America a thousand times. I don't remember if anyone did pooja there, but it felt like the most mainstream of the three experiences.

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