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The cosmos in a grain of sand

Observer Viewpoint | Friday, April 22, 2005

It is July of 2004. The day slowly turns to dusk as I sit at the edge of the Ganges River in Rishikesh, India. Rishikesh claims to be the yoga capital of the world. Its famous visitors include four young British men who called themselves the Beatles; they came looking for enlightenment. Determining whether or not they found it would demand a rather thorough analysis of late Beatles’ recordings. If I had to venture a guess I would say George came closest, with Lennon not too far behind.

I myself came to this sacred river not in search of enlightenment, but simply in hope of observing a ritual. I am one of less than a dozen obvious Westerners searching for a piece of the eternal amid a few hundred Hindus at the edge of a sacred river.

More precisely, I am waiting for the evening puja ritual to begin. Brahmin priests prepare the grounds for singing, chanting, prayers and the release of lighted offerings into the river. As the large crowd waits for the main ritual to begin a group of about 10 gather around a small candelabra of sorts with a young Brahmin priest. He leads the small circle in chants and, at certain points in the ritual, each devotee drops a small bit on incense onto the burning flames.

Viewing this all through eyes formed by my Catholic upbringing, I imagine that the rising smoke symbolizes prayers traveling heavenward. Perhaps the sweet smell of incense gives the offering an aroma pleasing to the Lord.

As I ponder the similarities between Hinduism and the Catholic tradition the cell phone of a man on the far side of the circle begins to ring. I consider how embarrassing this would be for an American churchgoer. Most likely he would rush to stop its ringing, turning red in the process. Perhaps he would walk to the door, answering it as he made his exit, the congregation silently critiquing his rude behavior.

The Hindu man in the circle of prayer merely answers his phone and begins a conversation in Hindi. He talks for about five minutes, never moving from the circle. The ritual continues. He even stays somewhat involved, when able balancing the phone between his shoulder and head and offering his incense to the flames. Minutes later, his conversation complete, he turns the phone off and more actively engages the ritual before him. As with many things in India, no one else seems concerned with behavior that strikes me as quite amazing.

I hesitate to draw any conclusive sociological insight from a single isolated incident. At the same time, I mention this experience because one might find in it a glimpse of the deeper differences between the understanding of religion, ritual and everyday life prevalent in India and Hinduism and that of much of the Western and Christian worlds. Ritual and religion are interspersed with everyday life in India in a way that differs dramatically from the West. One might contend this was not so clearly the case years ago, where daily mass attendance was more prevalent and more homes had small shrines to the Virgin Mary or some other beloved saint.

Yet I think there is something more at work in Hindu faith and popular piety. A religion that emphasizes the presence of the Divine around every corner can infuse the world with a sense of the sacred that might appear foreign to our Western perception and its more transcendent frame of reference. In this blurring of distinction it should not surprise one that the profane and “secular” often find their way into ritual and religion in a way Westerners might deem unacceptable. Cows (themselves sacred) wander into temples, shrines spring up like wildflowers on the side of roads and a man talks on the phone while offering puja.

At the same time a grasp of the constant and surrounding presence of God, as well as the sacredness of creation, are not entirely foreign to Christian tradition. Paul preached that God created all people “so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him – though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being.'” Aquinas used these terms to describe God’s presence in creation: “God is in all things; not, indeed, as part of their essence, nor as an accident, but as an agent is present to that upon which it works.” The Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins celebrated that “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”

Rituals and liturgies imbue actions with meaning and draw us closer to a deeper reality. Yet every action can be performed in a spirit of meditation and our vision can be refined to see the presence of God in the most mundane elements of our world. Actions can center us if we follow the advice of the Bhagavad-Gita: “Whatever you do, or eat, or offer, whatever you do, do as an offering.”

This is John Infranca’s last column. He thanks those who have read his pieces over the past two years. He is leaving now. Goodbye. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.