3.3 million gods

Indian notebook 3

The Hindu religion has 3.3 million gods. According to the Katie Melua song, there are 9 million bicycles in Beijing. Given the rate at which China is motorising, there may soon be more Hindu gods than bicycles in Beijing.  

It is impossible to avoid religion in India, in all its assorted shapes and sizes. As a rule of thumb, there are the severe religions of the world (such as Islam and Protestant Christianity), the serene religions (such as Buddhism and Confucianism) and the multi-coloured religions. The latter include Hinduism and Catholicism, and both were much in evidence in India, as – to varying degrees – were all the others.

In Kerala, where we began, roughly half the population is Hindu and a quarter each are Moslem and Catholic – the legacy of the Portuguese along the coast. The noisiest are the Catholics. Gigantic, garish, gory statues herald the entrance to each conspicuous church. On the beach at Kovalam, perhaps irritated by the muezzin’s loudspeaker calls to prayer, the church has installed its own exterior sound system and broadcasts early morning Mass at full volume in competition. Kovalam at dawn is a noisy place to be.

There, the different religions seem to co-exist peacefully. Less so in Rajasthan, however, where the ancient quarrels between Hindu and Moslem are never far from the surface. We picked this up from several of our guides in the different cities, most of whom were Hindus. There were mild asides, easy to miss but hostile (we thought at the time) to Islam. Then, in Mandawa, our guide took us to his family shop to sell us cushion covers. He said he would place the ones we liked in an India pile, and the ones we didn’t like in a Pakistan pile. Then it turned out that he was a Moslem, which left us bewildered.

Rajasthan has a long border with Pakistan and was the scene of some of the worst atrocities after Partition, in which up to 2 million people died and more than 14 million were displaced. No doubt many of the people we met in Rajasthan, from both communities, had deep family connections to these events, and are still affected by them.

It is difficult not to think of Ireland in this context. In both cases, the bloody-minded obduracy of the religious minority forced a partition of the country. However, in their mutual defence, it could be said that both had legitimate reasons to fear oppression by a theocracy of the majority. In India, extreme Hindu nationalists divided into a military and a political wing, the RSS and the BJP, similar to the division between the IRA and Sinn Fein. The RSS is thought to have murdered Gandhi. In both cases, the political wing has denied any involvement with the military wing. In India, the BJP currently forms the government.

One good thing that can be said of British imperial rule in India is that, in its official capacity, it was religiously neutral. Unlike other European nations, Britain did not use the power of the state to forcibly convert either Hindus or Moslems. There were missionaries, to be sure, but the British Establishment in India did little to encourage them. One of the better features of the British upper-middle classes is an instinctive suspicion of God-botherers.

A consequence, though, is that when Britain departed, all the pent-up religious and nationalist animosities erupted, as they did in Yugoslavia after Tito’s death.

The darker side of Hinduism is hard to reconcile with the festive, almost jolly, celebrations we saw in the temples. Or with a transcendently beautiful early morning Hindu chant we heard in Mandawa, which outdid anything the Moslems and Catholics had to offer in Kovalam.

We were lucky enough to see, and to attend, a Theyyam in a roadside temple in Kerala. In this ceremony, performed once a year in each temple, an Untouchable becomes a god for the day and dispenses wisdom and advice to worshippers. Some parts of alien cultures must always remain beyond comprehension. It is unfathomable to me how a religion can consign millions of people to be Untouchables during their life on earth. And equally unfathomable that they then treat a person from this group as a god, if only for a day.

We were told repeatedly that the caste system is dying out in India, and certainly the government has taken measures of positive discrimination to encourage this. But we have our doubts. It still seems to run strong in rural areas. Even among the young elites of the big cities, caste bitterness and violence is far from unknown.

When one does not adhere to any organised religion, the similarities between them become more obvious. Standing in the magnificent Jain temple in Ranakpur provoked sensations identical to what I felt in the great mosque of Córdoba. The story of the origin of the beloved Ganesh, the elephant god, bears striking similarities to the virgin birth.

We visited the Elephanta caves in Mumbai harbour, dedicated to Shiva. One of the statues, the Trimurti, presented three faces of the god. The central face is calm and detached, the left expresses the feminine and peaceful, and the right reveals the fierce and masculine. The three faces are said to symbolise the nature of the Divine. When the Portuguese invaded the coast, and occupied Elephanta Island, they used the Hindu statues for target practice. But they did not fire a shot at the Trimurti statue, in case it represented the Trinity.

It is Ganesh that gives the lie to the hippy belief that Indian religions offer a richer spiritual experience than our own. They can do, but ours can be deeply spiritual too. For most, Hinduism is as materialistic as Christianity has become, and the prayers offered are for wealth and success. Some statues of the ubiquitous Ganesh feature his trunk turned to the right, which represents wisdom. The others feature a trunk turned to the left, which represents wealth. In almost all Ganesh statues we saw, the trunk was turned to the left.

We watched Indian dances, traditional but not classical, most of which interpreted religious themes. The experience was not dissimilar to watching a pantomime, replete with heroes and villains and even a pantomime dame. Perhaps our pantomimes had their origins in a pre-Christian religion.

I like the fact that the Hindus enjoy their religion and that many of their gods display human frailties, as do the worshippers. At the Theyyam in Kerala, almost all the people lining up to talk to the god were women. What about the men? we asked. Did they not attend? They came earlier, said our guide. Now they’ve gone off for a drink in the toddy shop.