Temple and mosque. Image courtesy of the District of Varanasi website.
The Kashi Vishwanath Temple is on the "must-see" list of places to visit in Varanasi. Dedicated to the Hindu god Shiv (in the aspect of Vishwanath, "Lord of the World"), it was destroyed by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in the late 17th century and replaced by the Gyanvapi Mosque, and subsequently rebuilt adjacent to the mosque. Parts of the old temple's decorations can still be seen on the mosque walls. It is both a major pilgrim destination as well as a terrorist target. In March 2006 three bomb-blasts killed some 21 people in various areas of the city. Situated in the heart of the old city, surrounded by rickety old homes and a warren of alleys, it's a flash point on the religious divide that runs through the sub-continent.
We were lead to the temple along a narrow path ("It may be a little longer, but the main entrance is very crowded and I'm not sure mataji would manage," our guide explained, using the common North Indian honorific for mom.) dodging cows and fresh piles of dung and ignoring the stares from the locals (I suspect it was my camera.). Security is tight. Mobiles, all sharp objects, cameras, are to be left in lockers outside the temple area (along with one's footwear, of course). Mom negotiated the price for a bundle of garlands, sugar, sindur (red powder, to be offered to the goddess Annapurna, whose temple is right next to that of the jyotirlinga) and prasad. Our guide warned us that we'd be harrassed by the priests in the temple. "Don't say yes to them. I will arrange a sarkari pandit ..." I hastily cut him off. "No, we don't want any priests. None. Period." (Besides, what the heck is a sarkari pandit - a government priest - anyway?) I was frisked four times by four different police officers. Mom got away with two inspections of her handbag. Another narrow alley -- in a gap I spotted several jawans of what appeared to be the CRPF, machine guns dangling nonchalantly from their necks -- a little ahead and there's a deep red wall to one's right with a Devnagiri inscription identifying the temple, a crowd of devotees jostling one another in the short, narrow doorway leading to the inner compound.
And then they appeared, like vultures smelling a fresh kill. Bare chested, white dhoti clad pandits, janeus (sacred threads) running down the ample contours of well-fed bellies. "This way mataji. This way sir ." We wave our hands in protest. "No, no! We don't want a priest. No rituals are necessary." "Don't worry, no puja vuja. Just follow me to offer the oblations and the prasad." I should have firmly put my foot down then. However, the tray with the offerings had already left my mother's hands, and given the general bustle, with throngs clamoring around, we followed him, like mice following the piper. My original intention had been to stay in the compound and let mom go say her prayers and offer prasaid, however, with such a crowd, I didn't want her to be alone, so I followed her into the first garbha griha, where a large flower covered lingam, surrounded by praying pilgrims, was attended to by a fat brahmin. "Put the flowers here, here take this garland. Touch Shri Kashi's feet. With both your hands. No no, both hands at the same time. Let me put the tikka on you. Now repeat after me." ... "Om ..." followed by incomprehensible Sanskrit. "You too, sir." And then, palm upturned ... "Dakshina. Whatever you please, 500-1000." Five hundred? You're kidding right? Here's fifty, bubba!
And then on to the second shrine, this one dedicated to the goddess Annapurna. A line of pilgrims was crowding the narrow doorway, orange-clad young men, kanwaris (who've taken vows to travel to various sites of pilgrimage during this holy month of Shravan), each ringing the bell and shouting "Bolay bum!" Our pandit beckons, "Mataji, this way!" I hesitate. There's no way all those kanwaris can fit inside the little sanctuary. "Let's wait till this lot gets out." "No no, come this way." Looking back, I realize that by "hiring" our own pandit, we jumped the queue. No need to mingle and jostle with the poor riff-raff, the aam janta, the hoi polloi. You're here to offer homage to the god and goddess, after all, to appease, to beg favors, to ask for help with your business, or your family, or to give thanks, maybe for a boy-child. Why stand in line? Like anywhere else there are different classes of service, with different price tags.
Once inside, a similar scene. Offer this here. Here get a tikka. Now a garland. Now say "Om" and repeat. Touch her feet. No no, with both hands. You too, sir!
Uhh. Umm. The first commandment? I told myself weakly. Oh please, you don't want to create a scene. Lord alone knows what they'll do if they find a mleccha in here, that too one that has abandoned the purity of the sanatana dharma, and one who is going to be a padri no less! Just follow along. Oh great. You know your spiritual forbears preferred death rather than offer libations to the emperor? Yes yes I know! You should have just worn your cross on the outside of your shirt. Oh shut up! I'm not going to embarrass my mother here!
It was hot, and waterfalls of perspiration gushed down my face, periodically causing the dark glasses perched on my head to slide down most annoyingly. Crowds pressed in on all sides. I felt claustrophic; and like a deer caught in headlights. I was furious. Mainly with myself for not anticipating this better, and not feeling resolute enough to avoid being bulldozered by the religious versions of the pesky wannabe guides and trinket sellers who plague tourist sites in India. And yes, furious at the exploitative pandits whose upturned palms emptied my wallet faster than the Sanskrit slokas flew out of their lips. Furious too because my father would have utterly despised this -- he was a rationalist, an agnostic. He could never stand this aspect of religion -- superstition, ritual for the sake of ritual, any sense of appeasing or bribing the divine, and certainly not a priestly caste that acted as a gatekeeper to God. He'd have lost his temper well before I did.
At the last one, we were told to do a parikrama around at least a dozen shiv-lingas. Separately (a tactic, we realized later, so that they could ask for dakshina from each of us separately). "Your name?" ... "Wife's name? "You're not married!" (Mumbled incantations follow asking for a good match for me). "Next time you come with wife and we will say prayers for domestic harmony." I gag. "Parents both alive?" "Oh .. you know, it is the duty of the son to pray for moksha for his father. Only a son can do this! Here! Pray now!" I bowed to the stone representation of Shiv's phallus, shut my eyes, and begging forgiveness, said an Our Father.
Finally, simultaneously, both of us said, "Ok, enough! Let us out of here!" Sensing our frustration, the brahmin complied and lead us to the doorway. "Now please, a dakshina for a poor brahmin. You know it is parampunya to feed a brahmin!" The highest of merits! He pointed to his bulging middle. I ignored him. Mom had had enough. "Bas! Enough! We've given enough inside there." He harangued us for a while, tried to snatch away the plate with the flowers and prasad, but finally, somewhat to my surprise, gave up. Perhaps because his keen nose smelt fresh victims approaching.
"I've never experienced anything like this! Not at Srinathji or Dwarka. Not at Tirupati!" my mother exclaimed. "It's enough to make one an atheist," I fumed. "Papa would have been furious!"
I felt filthy leaving the temple. Not just because of the crowd and heat and sweat, my shirt clinging to my back, and my feet sticky from god-knows-what from the temple floor. It was like having gone through a processing plant, or a conveyor belt, so that the ritual obligations could be fulfilled in the most efficient manner, in the least amount of time to the greatest benefit of the temple pandits, and once the gods were appeased, you could be spit out the narrow door, satisfied that the cards had been punched, the divine obligations met, ironically, spiritually clean. Certainly, there was no time to actually have any aesthetic appreciation of the place, or to people watch, or, especially, to actually pray or meditate. It was like having swallowed somethign bitter, with a lingering foul after-taste that permeated everything.
So, why on earth does it matter that I participated in some Hindu rituals? Aren't we all praying to the divine, in our own different ways? What does it matter that it was a statue of the goddess Annapurna rather than the Blessed Mother? I can see how my inner struggle above can be offensive to Hindus -- though some, certainly those Brahmins, would have been more offended at the violation of ritual purity that my presence might have caused -- as well as to secular liberals. For me, it isn't about purity at all, as if Hindu temples were spiritually polluting or some such thing. Purity/pollution as a ritual/cultural concept just doesn't -- rather it ought not to -- exist in Christianity. While I respect my religious roots, and the religion of my family (I've never understood my conversion as preventing me from being present at family pujas and other rituals, for instance), I also respect the fact that the two traditions understand the Divine in vastly different ways. It's one thing to dialogue, to learn from each other, to seek out commonalities, to work together for social reform, even to pray alongside each other. It's another to present oneself as a Hindu and participate in Hindu rituals. Apart from being deceptive, it's unfaithful to my own religious tradition and sense of discipleship. It's because truth actually matters -- and because religious rituals and symbols actually do matter (pace the secularists) -- that one ought to take these things seriously. Yes, I felt coerced and caught off-guard, but, my will wasn't shackled. I was, weak. Sinfully so.
[If one thinks that I'm exaggerrating about the putative offense that violations of ritual purity cause, just think to the fact that that unique feature of Indic civilization -- caste -- is entirely about ritual purity and pollution. The brahmins of Kashi Vishwanath, for instance, will not let the lower-castes who work the smashan ghats, the cremation grounds, on the banks of the holy Ganges, enter the temple. Their presence is defiling. It was gratifying to learn that those folk have built a large copper lingam of their own, right on the banks of the river, where they can offer their own pujas.
[I should add that, in my experience, not all Hindu temples operate with such efficient aggressiveness. Nor is Hinduism just about offering oblations to various gods and goddesses. It's an ancient religious system, vast, bewilderingly complex, mutli-faceted and mult-layered.]