Sunday, September 16, 2012

Theological Thoughts on a Hindu House Blessing

Yesterday, I attended a Hindu house blessing; for more on what we did and for different pictures, go to this post on my creativity blog.  I didn't talk much theology in that post.  It seems appropriate to think about the implications here.

The Hindu priest was very gracious, and he tried to explain much of what we observed yesterday.  He began by talking about the oneness of God, but how his people prefer to think about how this oneness is expressed in multitudes.

I have already glimpsed some of that idea in conversations that I've had with my Hindu friend.  I understand the many manifestations of God from my own Christian beliefs, although I confess to finding Trinitarian theory to be one of the most difficult elements of Christianity to explain.

But here's one thing that still eludes me.  My friend has objects that I would call statues, like Ganesh below, that less tolerant people might label idols. 

Are these objects the gods themselves or reminders of the ineffable, the God that cannot be captured?  A conversation for another day.

I was struck by so many things.  Let me try to record a few of them.

As we moved through each blessing and each offering and each section, the priest began the chanting with a long "Om."  I felt it in my bones, and I felt my rib cage open up.  I know that's supposed to happen, but I've rarely experienced it. 

I loved the chanting, even though I didn't understand the words.  My Jewish friend who was there said, "Chanting is chanting, whether in Sanskrit or Hebrew or Latin."  Indeed. 

In fact, I was struck by how many things about the Hindu house blessing felt familiar, in the midst of so much that was alien.  For example, the priest had streaks of ash on his forehead and earlobes:

During the ceremony, he explained that he puts ashes on his head every day so that he remembers how temporary our lives are, how soon, we all shall be dust.  I thought about how so many religions incorporate the same idea and the same symbol, the ash.  He said that the ash reminds him of how he must not get upset over issues that are so temporary.  It's just not worth it.

Other ideas that felt familiar:  the idea that we must strive to bring good into the world and to become our best selves.  He encouraged us again and again to be less judgmental, particularly when we're harsh with ourselves.  He came back to those ideas again and again.

I was also happy to see how laid back he was.  My Hindu friend, the homeowner, worried about all the items she didn't have.  The priest continued to assure her that she need not worry, that they'd improvise.  Once, when talking about the lack of the right kind of cotton, he said something along the lines of:  or we'll close our eyes and imagine the best cotton ever, and that will be enough.  How wonderful.

My friend is easily moved to fretfulness, to panic over not doing it all right.  The priest continued to soothe her and assure her that all would be well.

We watched various offerings to various Gods.  In the second half of the ceremony, we moved to the offerings to the fire gods:

I thought about my more conservative Christian friends, who would have been horrified and worried for their mortal souls at being present.  But I didn't worry.  Sometimes I think that Christianity has wandered too far away from those ancient roots.  We're not asked to sacrifice much, in most Christian churches.  Sure, we may tithe or go to feed the poor or make other kinds of sacrifices.  But most of our churches don't require it.

In fact, many churches focus much too much on wish fulfillment.  That whole strain of Prosperity Gospel theology tells us that we need to dream ever bigger and let God know exactly what we want--and the texts I've read don't encourage readers to ask God for a mosquito net for every bed so that malaria can be eradicated.

My Hindu friend teaches mythology and fairy tales, and she says that she always tells her students to beware of wishes.  Wish fulfillment has the price of sacrifice.  She always says, "What are you willing to give up to get your wish?"

It's a different view of sacrifice, but one that works for Western brains.

The service lasted over 90 minutes, and I didn't understand it all on a literal level, since much of the language wasn't in English.  The priest, however, was very gracious in explaining a bit what was happening.  Still, I didn't struggle to grasp it all.  I just let it wash over me.

I loved the basic messages, of a desire for new life out of the ashes of my friend's house fire, of the reminder that all is temporary and we should cherish what we have while we have it, especially our relationships.  I loved that the priest was happy to see our Western faces and that he invited us to come to his temple any time.  I feel so honored that our Hindu friend invited us.

I'm in an ecumenical mood these days, although I do worry a bit about being seen as a spiritual tourist or a dilettante.  Tonight my observant Jewish friends will celebrate Rosh Hashanah.  I plan to spend this afternoon making challah bread which I will braid into a circle shape.  After sunset, I will dip the challah into honey and wish for us all a good and sweet new year.

Perhaps tomorrow I'll cast bread on the water, as Rabbi Rachel Barenblat describes in this post.  She calls it "symbolic releasing or casting-away of our mistakes from the previous year."  I love that symbolism.  I'm ready to cast away those mistakes.  I'm ready for a year that doesn't come with house fires and staff reductions and all those other flames that reduce us to ash.  I'm ready for new life.

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