Other People's Devotion*

This is one of those posts that I've been thinking about for far too long, worrying about whether I could possibly do justice to the topic and waiting until I felt rested enough to take it on. Well, I'm not rested and it's been a long day at the desktop, but this is simply too important to let go and I want to write about it while it's relatively fresh. So here goes.

If you visited my blog on Saturday, you may have been a little surprised to see a photograph of my desk, perhaps even more surprised given that I am a Christian to find an image of the Hindu god Ganesha seated happily in front of the New Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus amidst the inspirational blurts held by the silver torsos. What gives? Well, if you've read my "About Me" sidebar, you may have noticed that I mention Ganesha as one of my patrons, along with the Virgin Mary (whose statue is on the other side of the desk, towards the windows). Surely I do not pray to Ganesha, you ask. Well, yes and no.

A little background. My son's seventh-grade class has been given the project of interviewing someone different from themselves, whether in race, neighborhood, socio-economic status, religious background or political views. For his interview, my son decided that he wanted to learn more about Hinduism and so we set out to find somebody Hindu. Happily, the family who owns our favorite Indian restaurant was more than willing to oblige, and on Wednesday, my son and I went with Mr. Patel to his apartment so that he could show us his personal shrine.

It was an amazing experience, even for someone as familiar with the Hindu deities from years of going to yoga centers as I.

The apartment was fairly modest (only two bedrooms), albeit with wonderful views. Very few books (unlike our home, which is simply stuffed full), but statues of deities everywhere, all clearly carefully attended to, with garlands around their necks and burners for incense at their feet. But the real lesson was the shrine: an open box, two or three feet on a side, just like the ones I had seen on Sunday when my son and I visited the local (i.e. 30 miles west of the Lake) temple or mandir to see what a larger shrine was like; the little household shrines were on sale in the bookstore, along with the pamphlets on satsang and stories of the gods. Mr. Patel's shrine sat by itself in what was probably supposed to be a closet, but was so well-lit by the string of lights draped over the shrine that it was as if we were seated in a little room.

Inside the shrine were the gods: Ganesha, to whom one always prays first, otherwise, as Mr. Patel explained, nothing can go right. Then Shiva, seated on his tiger skin--Mr. Patel showed us his own tiger skin on which he (and only he, never his wife) sits while he prays. Then the mother goddesses--Mr. Patel told us a story about how the mother goddesses were formed from the ashes of [and now I forget, I think Shiva's wife]. Then Hanuman, Mr. Patel's particular god, as revealed in his horoscope (which revelation was accompanied by the equally serendipitous tidbit that Mr. Patel and I have the same birthday, but I don't think that that means Hanuman is my god, too; the horoscope depends on time of day as well as date).

In addition to the gods, Mr. Patel showed us the different powders that he uses to honor each of them, explaining that Ganesha likes the red one but none of the others, while Shiva likes sandal and most of the yellow ones but not the red. There was also the ghee to be burned in the silver brazier in front of the gods, with an upright wick to honor Ganesha and a long, low wick to honor the mother goddesses. Before he had begun his explanation, Mr. Patel had lit a stick of incense and said a prayer to Ganesha; the incense was burning throughout our lesson.

We asked what prayers Mr. Patel says and he showed us a little booklet, laminated but very well worn, all in Hindi. "Here are the prayers I say every day," he said, pointing to the different texts. "There are different ones for each day of the week; see, here are today's." The prayers were specially devoted to Hanuman, Mr. Patel's special god. "If I neglect my worship, everything goes bad for me. On Saturday, I had to go to Philadelphia to visit my son, and I washed my hair and shaved, which I am never supposed to do on Saturdays. On Sunday, I got a traffic ticket for $119; I never get tickets, but this happened because I had gone against my god."

By this point, we were in awe at how open Mr. Patel had been with us about his devotions and asked how he, as a Hindu, would feel about those who were not Hindu praying to his gods. Could someone convert to Hinduism or did one need to be born Hindu? This was a tricky question: Mr. Patel himself feels that in order to live properly as a Hindu, he would need to live in India, where all of the gods have their shrines and where they themselves lived while on earth. But Mr. Patel was not born in India nor has he lived there for more than a few months; his family comes from East Africa via London and he has lived in the States for at least ten years. So he worships as well as he can, but knows that his worship is not perfect.

What about non-Indians? "No problem," he replied. If, that is, they worship with true devotion. He talked about some of the temples in London, where many non-Indians worship Krishna, and seemed quite happy that there were those who prayed to the Lord Krishna, even if they had not been born Hindu. Likewise for the non-Hindus who visit the mandir outside of Chicago: the point is to be truly devout; everyone is welcome to worship. I found myself wondering whether Mr. Patel was typical of most Hindus in his openness to other people's devotion, but his brother-in-law (also Mr. Patel) had claimed that our Mr. Patel was much more devout than he or his sister (sorry, confusing there, too many Patels). In which case, intense devotion in itself is hardly a barrier to recognizing the validity of others'.

As this was my son's interview, I was trying not to ask too many questions myself, but in the end I had to speak up. "I have had a special devotion to Ganesha for years, ever since I was in graduate school," I explained. "I have a postcard of Ganesha on the wall over my desk that I bought when I was writing my dissertation and I have kept it over my desk ever since. Is this okay?" "Oh, yes," Mr. Patel said. "You have followed your heart. Your heart told you that you had this devotion and you listened to it. There is nothing wrong with that, not at all."

But is there? Ganesha is actually an entirely appropriate patron for me: he is the god to whom one prays, as Mr. Patel explained, whenever one starts something new, at the beginning of one's prayers every day, before making a big purchase, before starting a business, before beginning to write. Ganesha is the remover of obstacles; he is also the patron of writers and the god of intellect and wisdom. He loves sweets and is worshipped with gifts of sweets; he has an elephant's head because he tried to protect his mother Parvati from a stranger who turned out to be his father, Shiva, but whom he had not met because Shiva had been away meditating in the jungle. He is a hybrid, much like another god to whom I am accustomed to pray.

And yet, he's not real, is he? Not as real as Christ or the Trinity, right? Listening to Mr. Patel talk us through his devotions, I really wasn't sure. No, I don't need a lesson in the deceptions of the demons and how they tempt human beings to false worship by appearing in other guises. Nor do I need a lesson in how jealous God (a.k.a. Yahweh) becomes when Israel turns from his love to the worship of idols. Yes, of course; Ganesha is made-up. But Mr. Patel's devotion most certainly is not. I wish that I had as much devotion in my whole body as he has in his ring finger--the one that he uses to put powder on the heads of his gods every morning. Here was someone who really prays, and not just prays, but worships his gods. They are his life-force, the energy that he feels throughout the day. It is unthinkable now for him not to worship them (although he admits that in his youth, he tended to neglect them). And what does he hope to accomplish through his worship? What is it that he prays for? Peace. He worships in order to live in the way that he should and to be at peace.

Throughout our visit, I could not help but recall a passage in Sir John Mandeville's somewhat fanciful fourteenth-century account of the devotion that the people of "Mabaron" (Coromandel, the southeast coast of the Indian peninsula) pay to their "Juggernaut":

"To that image people often come in pilgrimage with great devotion, as frequently as Christian folk come to Saint James [at Compostella]. And some of them, out of the great devotion that they have for that idol, will constantly look at the earth as they walk, not looking about them, lest they should see anything that would hinder their devotion. Others come in pilgrimage carrying sharp knives in their hands, with which, as they go along, they wound themselves in the arms and legs and other places, so that the blood runs from their wounds in great profusion. This they do for love of that idol, and say that he who dies for love of that idol will be blessed indeed....

"You must know that when there are great festivals of that idol--the dedication of a church, or the enthroning of the idol--all the country assembles there. They set this idol with great reverence in a chariot, arrayed in cloth of gold and silk, and lead it about the city with great solemnity. In front of the chariot there go first in procession the maidens of that land, two by two; and then all the pilgrims that have come from far countries, some of whom out of great devotion to that idol fall down in front of the chariot and let it roll over them. And so some of them are slain, some have their arms and legs broken; and they believe that the more pain they suffer here for the love of that idol, the more joy they will have in the other world and the nearer God they will be."

Mandeville was in fact mistaken (or misinformed): at the festival of Krishna Jagannatha ("Lord of the Universe") it is true that the statue of Krishna is carried in procession on a giant chariot and that occasionally, owing to the crush of the crowd, people fall under its wheels, but only by accident. For Christian missionaries in the 19th century, such (purported) behavior could be evidence only of fanaticism. For Mandeville, however, it is a reproach to Christians themselves: "And truly they suffer so much pain and mortification of their bodies for love of that idol that hardly would any Christian man suffer the half--nay, not a tenth--for love of Our Lord Jesus Christ."*

I hope now you can see what I'm getting at. Listening to Mr. Patel talk about his gods and the worship that he offers them every day, my first thought was, "Oh, my goodness, he really thinks they're real." And my second thought was: "He really thinks they're real; what if they are?" Non-Hindus tend to think of yoga as a form of spiritual practice-cum-physical exercise. Sure, there are psychological and physical benefits, but it's really just breathing and stretching, right? For Hindus, however, "yoga" doesn't mean a system of asanas or a technology of meditation; it means "devotion". Mr. Patel's "yoga" is to his god Hanuman. "Yoga" is being linked in devotion ("bhakti") to the divine.

It's a curious thing. Theologically and intellectually, I am very much a Christian, and a Protestant Christian at that. And yet, devotionally, I am much more drawn to Catholicism and Mary and, indeed, Hinduism and Ganesha. Sometimes I wonder whether it's just the statues. I've decorated my Mary on my desk with some plastic beads that my son gave me when he was in nursery school; I can wholly understand the desire to dress the gods up as Mr. Patel showed us he does. There was a whole drawer of fancy outfits for his gods, party clothes for them to wear on different days. And burning candles and incense, marking the statues with powders, praying to each one in order, telling stories about them: all of this makes perfect sense to me. More to the point, it feels right. Everything in my theological upbringing is at odds with this response, and yet, I know in my heart that this is what real devotion feels like: grounded in the material, while at the same time wholly transcendent.

Mandeville used the story of the Juggernaut to attempt to shame his readers into recognizing how lukewarm was their devotion to Christ. If the people of Mabaron were willing to suffer such injuries and even death for love of an idol, how much the more should Christians be willing to suffer for love of God? If Mr. Patel can worship his gods with such devotion every morning, fasting three days of week and not washing out of love for them, how much the more should not I be willing to do for Christ, if I really believe him to be the true God? But what is truth when it comes to God? Is Mr. Patel not worshipping the true God, the God of love and compassion for all human beings? Is he not worshipping even more truly than those who would exclude others from the worship of God by claiming their worship to be the one true way and all others to be false?

N.B. Mr. Patel did not claim that any way of worshipping Ganesha or Shiva or the mother goddesses or Hanuman was okay; it was very important, he stressed, to do puja exactly right and to keep one's devotion to the gods. Otherwise, traffic tickets and all sorts of other calamities would befall. But, nevertheless, he contended, worship begins from the heart. My heart told me to worship Ganesha; this in itself was right and good. "How then should I pray to him?," I asked. "What should I say?" "Just this: Jaya Sri Ganesha namo namah; Lord Ganesha I worship you, while holding your hands like this and making a bow. Do this, and you will be fine."

I still don't know quite what to think about our experience on Wednesday. I know that I feel like I learned more about real (a.k.a. "medieval") devotion in two hours with Mr. Patel than I have learned in as many years reading about analogous practices among medieval Christians. What would you not give to have a real live medieval Christian at your elbow to explain what it means to go on pilgrimage to Saint James? Well, there I was with a real live Hindu explaining what it had meant to go to India for two months and study with his guru. What struck me most was how I could actually sense his prayer, as if it were something tangible, a transformation of the space in which we were sitting, an opening of the world to the possibility that the gods might actually respond. Not the sort of thing one expects to experience sitting in a closet on the upper floor of a Chicago highrise, but then God does work in mysterious ways.

*The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, trans. C.W.R.D. Moseley (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983), pp. 124-26.


  1. So...Mr. Patel is like Emeth from 'The Last Battle'?

  2. Yes, from our perspective. But what if we are Emeth from his?

  3. Hmmm...Fencing Bear is trickier than your average bear. I suppose the correct answer is to try to point Emeth to the True Aslan while we are still on this side of the New Narnia?

  4. This is the tricky part. I am absolutely convinced that devotion requires an object and that the meaning of life is, as JRRT once put it, to worship God. So it really does matter than one worships correctly. But I cannot see Mr. Patel's worship as incorrect insofar as it is very true worship; he loves God more actively and more deeply than many who call themselves Christian but who do not surrender themselves to absolute worship (always hedging with qualifiers and historical contingencies). My son actually asked him what the statues were for, whether they were actually the gods or simply foci for devotion, and Mr. Patel answered in much the same way medieval Christians would when asked about their images: the image helps keep the mind from wandering. I wonder, too, about the way in which it makes the god(s) seem more real.


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