Rhiannon in India: Observing the many religions of India

A lot has been changing here recently. Finals are quickly approaching, the end of our program is almost a month away, and believe it or not, it is getting a little cooler here in Hyderabad. Right now, we are busy reviewing for finals in our classes, making travel plans for our last trips around India, and preparing for the Cultural Show, a performance that the Study in India program puts on at the end of every semester for the entire university. SIP students will perform things they know from home or something that they have learned here, like sitar or traditional dance. According to our advisors, it’s a huge hit among the university community and the auditorium is always packed. My sitar class will be performing two songs in the show, one traditional raga and one popular Bollywood song from the movie Aashiqui II. Together, the songs total 15 minutes of straight playing time, so it’s safe to say my fingers will be totally numb by the end.

Because I am leaving India in only one month, I have been spending more time reflecting on what I have learned in my time here – what has fascinated me, what has confused me, and what I am still interested to learn more about. A few weeks ago, CIEE took us to Varanasi (formerly called Banaras) for a long weekend trip, and although I have been interested in the many religions of India since I arrived in July, being in Varanasi made me even more fascinated by the complexity of the subject. Just as in any other part of the world, religion is a complex part of Indian culture that is impossible to boil down to one blog post, but somehow India strikes me as even more complicated than many other places in its religious culture. It seems impossible for an outsider like me to understand the innumerable traditions, values, festivals, and rituals of each of the religious groups present in India, especially because each part of the country has created its own unique version over the centuries. What’s more, religion or spirituality is much more present in everyday life here than it is in the US, so I am surrounded by constant reminders of its importance and complexity.

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The Bahai Lotus Temple in Delhi

Of course, religion is different for every person in India, and there is no way I have seen even a small part of all there is to see. I have met Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, and I’m sure many others. Instead of attempting to make sense of it all, I would just like to share the experiences I have had over the past few months that show just how integral religion is to Indian culture.

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A small shrine on the side of the road in Pondicherry

As Hinduism is the dominant religion in India, there are references to Hindu gods everywhere you turn. There are Hindu temples along the roadsides, tucked away between houses in neighborhoods, and among the rocks on the hillsides. There are shrines to one god or another in almost every store and restaurant, puja rooms in almost every Hindu household, and pictures or statuettes of deities in many taxis and autos. As I said before, each region of India has molded their own religious traditions, so people always joke that if we celebrated every religious holiday in India, we would never have to go to school or work. Adding to this is the shear number of gods recognized in Hinduism. There are millions of Hindu deities, but most Hindus will say that this is because there are just many names for each of the main gods.

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Men performing morning puja at Assi Ghat in Varanasi

As I said, our trip to Varanasi last month really solidified my interest in religion in India. Varanasi, nestled on the edge of the Ganges River, is the “Mecca of Hinduism” and full of religious temples, stupas, and shrines to various Hindu gods and the Buddha. It is one of the only places in India that is famous for its sacred rituals concerning all parts of the life cycle. The Ganges River, named after the Hindu goddess Ganga, is the holiest river in India, although all rivers are considered to be auspicious because of their cleansing and purifying qualities. All Hindus aspire to visit Varanasi and bathe in the Ganges at least once in their lifetime to be cleansed of their sins. Unfortunately, the Ganges has now become one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Families unable to afford cremation often put the bodies of the deceased in the river anyway, and you can see trash lining the water’s edge as you walk along the riverbank. However, this doesn’t deter many followers of Hinduism and other religions that worship the Ganges from bathing in the water, or even drinking it to cure diseases.

There are over one hundred “ghats,” or long, steep steps leading down to the water’s edge, along the riverside in Varanasi. These ghats are used for bathing, daily puja, and death rituals. At many of the ghats, there are cremation pyres, where the bodies of the dead are burned and their ashes spread into the water of the Ganges, allowing that person to reach Moksha, or the liberation from the reincarnation cycle of life and death. As we explored the city that weekend, it seemed like every 20 minutes we saw a funeral procession moving through the narrow, crowded alleyways toward the river, with covered bodies laid out on stretchers carried by two men. At first all the talk about death was a bit depressing, and I wondered if this process of pushing through the crowds of people was disrespectful to the deceased. However, I came to realize as I watched this happen many times that the procession through the holy city to the river is a very sacred part of the death ritual.

Because of these rituals, many Hindus and people from other religions move from all over the world to the holy city in order to die and be cremated by the Ganges. As a result, Varanasi has become a microcosm of India, comprised of small neighborhoods for people from each region of the country. Even the way each of these groups practices Hinduism – the gods they worship, the types of temples they build, and the rituals they conduct – are very different, so moving around the city quickly becomes a lesson in the cultural plurality of India.

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Men having their heads shaved on the street for Pitru Paksha, a 16-day period when Hindus pay homage to their ancestors

We also went to Sarnath, the sister city of Varanasi where the Buddha gave his first sermon and now home to a Buddhist stupa and a sapling from the Bhodi tree under which the Buddha found enlightenment. A stupa is a solid mound of earth, stone, or brick of any size, usually containing relics from the Buddha himself, that is used as a meditation site for Buddhists. We have seen many stupas while we have been in India, and most of them contain relics (usually ashes) from the Buddha. At first, I thought it was very curious that, although Buddhism originated in India, there are very few Buddhists in the country, and instead it is practiced mainly in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Thailand, and other Asian countries. But I learned from a few friends here that in India, Buddhism is not considered a religion separate from Hinduism. Rather, the Buddha is considered a Hindu sage, and his followers in India consider themselves Buddhist Hindus. It was not until the ideology spread to other countries that it became a religion in itself.

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The Buddhist stupa in Sarnath

Although Hinduism is the main religion in India, Hyderabad is actually one of the largest Muslim centers in the country. As you go towards the Old City in the center of Hyderabad, you will see more mosques, men wearing taquiyas (head coverings), and women wearing hijabs or burkas. Even from our apartment, we can hear music from the Hindu temple and the call to worship in Arabic from the Mosque in our neighborhood. The Old City has a large Muslim population because Hyderabad used to be ruled by the Nizams, an Islamic monarchy, from 1724 until 1948. This mixture of Islamic and Hindu culture makes Hyderabad an especially interesting place to live.

I didn’t intend for this blog post to be a boring lecture on religion, but I hope that it shows just how important religion is to the vast majority of people in India. Because we are surrounded by it every day as we are studying here, it has become something we must learn about – whether we like it or not. I know I am not alone in my frustration over which Hindu god did what, what religious holidays we are celebrating practically every week, or the reasoning behind the rituals that we witness everyday. But becoming a part of these things has been a wonderful opportunity that I could have never had at home.

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2 Responses to Rhiannon in India: Observing the many religions of India

  1. es says:

    Far removed from boring. This is a fascinating essay; clearly written & vivid.

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