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Posts Tagged ‘Hinduism’

A bolt of lightning tore through the tumultuous Tibetan sky, momentarily illuminating the dirt track in front of our Landcruiser. The driver glanced nervously in his rear-view mirror, understanding fully that an uncomfortably bumpy dirt track would turn into an impassable quagmire if the storm managed to overtake us.

But amidst that darkening scene the sky in front of us told a completely different story, as dark browns mixed with rich reds and vibrant yellows to form one of the most breathtaking sunsets I had ever seen. Then, after just a moment it was all gone and our 4×4 was once again plunged into total darkness. We were racing across the high Tibetan plateau, 5000 meters above sea level, in the middle of nowhere, and our journey to the immensely spiritual Mt. Kailash had barely begun.

Little did I know when I left the sleepy little Tibetan town of Lhatse earlier that day that it would be the last time I saw a paved road for the next four or five days. While I knew that completing a three-day high-elevation hike around Kailash, one of the most religiously significant mountains in all Asia, would take sacrifice, I had little notion the sacrifices would begin days before I actually laid my eyes on the mountain itself.

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Over the past week I’ve taken some time to decompress and reflect on the epic tale of Lost that many of us have enjoyed over the past six years, and what I’ve come to realize is that while Lost may have left some dissatisfied, a point I’m sure won’t disappear anytime soon, it has attempted to do something that few shows have tried before, and clearly it has left the public wanting more.

One needs to look no further than the amazing amount of speculation and controversy surrounding the final credits of the finale, a sweeping shot of the airplane wreckage on the beach, a scene that sparked off an avalanche of speculation that the wreckage was really meant to tell us that the passengers of Oceanic flight 815 were dead all along.

However, with an ABC spokesperson crushing any and all speculation over the credits, we are now left with the question, what do we do now? Certainly some other show will come along that will attempt to fill our voracious appetite for conspiracy theories and our underlying quest to find the deeper meaning of our existence, but I doubt it’ll ever see the same success that Lost achieved.

The impression of Lost that I’m left with is not that I watched a show that entertained millions around the world for the past half-dozen years, but I was able to witness a show that got more people talking about religion, the afterlife, philosophy, and the meaning of existence than any religious institution, philosophy class, or new age yoga seminar ever could.

But this got me thinking.  Is that a good thing?

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Lying in the north of India, in what is today the province of Punjab, lies a sacred place like no other. Since ancient antiquity, a small lake called Amritsar, which means ‘Pool of the Nectar of Immortality,’ has drawn sages, mendicants, aesthetics and priests the world over, luring them with its elusive promises of enlightenment and peace. While the name that once referred to a simple and serene place of meditation has since come to refer to the temple complex built around it, and sooner still, the name for the city, the lure of the nectar of immortality offered by this holy site still remains.

While legend has it that great spiritual revolutionaries like the Buddha came to this place seeking enlightenment at the water’s edge, it was much later, only a short 500 years ago that the father of the Sikh religion, Guru Nanak, came to this place and discovered its gentle yet powerfully insistent draw. Spurred on by strong notions of religious equality, social egalitarianism, freedom from the harsh social and political impositions of the Hindu caste system, and a belief in the one God, Guru Nanak established this site as a place that would echo those same virtues.

As I stood on the steps of the entrance to the temple complex, a distinct feeling of intrusion washed over me. Before me stood the Golden Temple, one of the most magnificent sites that my eyes had ever beheld, a place so holy that I felt that entering this place without being a Sikh would be one of the gravest offences of all.

                           

But that is one of the amazing things about adherents to the Sikh faith, for while the Golden Temple is indeed one of the focal points of their religion, they welcome all people there with open arms. Having spent years studying and visiting religious sites around the world, I can honestly say that there are few as welcoming to outsiders as the Golden Temple.

Despite the fact that thousands of pilgrims, worshippers, and gawking tourists filled the immense complex, there was still a profound sense of peace, that this place, whether you believed the tenets of the Sikh faith or not, naturally communicated a sense of spiritual fulfillment; a place, I could clearly see, that could easily fulfill its unspoken promise of enlightenment.

Upon visiting places like the Vatican City, the solid gold Buddha of Bangkok, or even the Golden Temple, I always wrestle with the lingering feelings of disappointment. I’m disappointed not in the beauty or spiritual power of these places, for few could deny those things exist, but in what strikes me as an unfortunate misappropriation of religious wealth. How many hungry beggars could be fed with the amount of gold leaf that covers the Golden Temple? How many penniless orphans could be clothed with one gold statue from the Vatican?

However, the difference at the Golden Temple is that the Sikh community has found a way to effectively do both. As part of every pilgrims visit to the Golden Temple there is always the promise of food and water (or chia if you like), as the temple complex sports one of the largest communal kitchens (or langars) in the world. Embodying the Sikh principle of equality, the communal kitchen was established in the 16th century as a way of bringing people to together and meeting one of humanity’s most fundamental needs, nourishment.

                          

As I sat cross-legged on the floor of the great eating hall, watching the giant vats of boiling Daal (lentils) and the efficient assembly line of women making chapattis (flat bread), I couldn’t help but think that quite possibly the Sikh community in Amritsar had made me feel more at home, more at peace, and more accepted than almost any other place in the world. ..and that’s saying a lot.

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Lightning tore through the sky like a jagged knife, unleashing a torrential downpour of biblical proportions. As I stared at the steep path that stretched out in front of me I knew I was about to begin a journey of repentance—for I had angered the monkey god, and he did not forgive easily.

I was in Shimla, a once prominent Indian city precariously perched in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains, home to a temple dedicated to the Hindu monkey god, Hanuman. Earlier that day, while touring the city with some friends I had made a joke, in a moment of uncharacteristic forgetfulness, that was both disrespectful and rude when I uncouthly referred to Hanuman as the “ass-faced god”. Immediately after the words had left my mouth I was sure I had committed a great evil, not because I believe that Hanuman exists, but because I had trampled on a belief that millions of people hold dear. And in that moment of guilt, I knew that Hanuman would tag me back.           

I stood at the base of the path, where I met a wizened old sage standing by the side of the road. In broken English he offered me the best in monkey protection, and I could only imagine what sort of religious artifact he had to help me ward off the wrath of Hanuman. His assistance, however, was far more pragmatic than that…he offered me a stick to ward off the thousands of actual monkeys that inhabited the temple, as they were famous for accosting travelers and stealing any loose items.

So, with a new found fear of rabid attack monkeys burned into my mind, I set offer, like Indiana Jones in his search for the Holy Grail, unaware of the tests and challenges that the monkey god would put in my path.           

The road towards the temple soon became a steep Everest-like trail, and as I scrambled up I found myself surrounded by several young Indian men. Throughout the country I had been continually surprised at how popular I was as a young, white, North American man. I was regularly accosted by these groups of young men who wanted to shake my hand or take my picture. Eventually, I started charging 10 rupees per picture in an effort to capitalize on my fame; a move that was apparently both hilarious and expensive, since they always laughed and laughed, and then tried to take my picture anyways. But along the trail I considered this to be a divine challenge; a test in patience delivered by the monkey god himself, and so I gladly posed for a few photos. 

As the deluge continued to soak me to the bone, I encountered a small group of monkeys on the side of the road. They menacingly hissed at me, knowing that I had offended their master, and heeding the advice of a friend, I tried not to make direct eye contact, lest it seem like I was challenging their supremacy. But then, unexpectedly, the monkeys tested me in a way I had never experienced before, they started to pee into their own mouths. Having wandered the globe, unafraid to eat whatever foods were laid out before me, I had long thought I had an iron stomach, but on that fateful morning in Shimla, that myth was busted. So after my breakfast had freed itself from the clutches of my stomach, I worked hard to purge those images from my head as I continued to press on.

After what seemed like an eternity I reached the top of the mountain, out of breath and drenched to the core. As I ventured towards the temple, passing under a sign that read “The Monkey Kingdom” I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. I waved my stick at the throngs of monkeys that surrounded me, hoping that it was enough to keep them at bay, making sure to remain vigilant for monkeys who over time had become adept at picking pockets.

I entered the line of pilgrims waiting for entry into the temple, and it was here that I breathed a sigh of relief, briefly dropping my guard, and in that moment, Hanuman tagged me back. The monkey struck so quickly that I didn’t even react, as he had landed on my shoulder, grabbed my glasses off my head, and jumped to safety before I even knew what had happened. I moved towards him, but soon realized that even with my stick, I was badly outmatched, as the entire monkey kingdom seemed to come to his aid. Knowing I was beaten, I humbly paid my respects to Hanuman, and journeyed back down the hill.

I learned a valuable lesson that day, the price of joking about the monkey god was steep; the contents of my stomach and a pair of glasses. At least it wasn’t something worse.

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