Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Thoughts on the Golden Temple

Back when it was Ganesha Chaturthi, I had wanted to write a post tentatively titled "Why do all these white people want to see pujas?" (This I overheard one desi visiting fac say to another while three of us pasty-style visiting fac were getting ready to go pandal-visiting.)

When I told people I was going to Amritsar, the most common follow-up was "why?"

Of course they knew there was this famous temple in Amritsar. "Then go for a day," they told me. "You can walk through the Golden Temple in an hour and then leave."

Keeping in mind that I did become sick -- very sick -- in Amritsar, and that the last half of my stay there was spent in a hotel room watching the entire "Ross and Emily" arc on Friends, perhaps the people who told me I shouldn't have gone to the city had a point.

But I wouldn't give the three days I spent at the Golden Temple back for anything. You don't "walk through" a place like that in an hour.

I grew up in a very small, very white Midwestern town. We had church. We had plenty of church. One of my high school jobs was church organist/choral accompanist. I was an "every-Sunday" kind of gal.

And yet I couldn't help but notice what I felt to be an absence of spirituality at these churches -- or, at least, the kind of spirituality I felt like I needed in my own life. At my Midwestern church, there was plenty of warmth, plenty of friendship and kind words and smiling. But there wasn't a sense of the divine presence among us. "When two or three gather in My name, I am there," as the quotation goes. Perhaps, and certainly a force may have been watching us and loving us and cracking a wry smile, but for me it was Sunday after Sunday of sermons punctuated with jokes and flickering PowerPoint images featuring clip art a decade old.

To wit: I came from a church where on Christmas, our minister distributed blueberry mini-muffins for Communion and, in lieu of a sermon, told a story about an angel who wanted to learn how to tap-dance.

And so I got on a train bound for Amritsar and one of the holiest, most sacred places in the world.

Why Amritsar and not, say, Tirupathi? In part because I knew the Golden Temple would take me in. One of the tenets of Sikhism is that their sacred centers are open to people of all faiths. And, when I was there, not only was I "taken in," but I was also taken care of. I was welcomed, invited to eat in the langar hall, allowed to sit for hours and listen to the kirtan, even allowed to sleep. (And, when the time came for the temple's thrice-daily cleaning, I was, along with everyone else, handed a bucket and shown what to do.)

Did I "find spirituality" at the Golden Temple? I think it was one of the sorts of things where a person goes to a place to remember what she already knows. That is to say, being there and being invited to meditate on the name of the Lord reminded me again of the necessity of connecting to the larger sense of faith, to what one might call the Divine, the Universal Connector, the Ultimate Source, which may or may not be our idealized human-faced God but is a definite something.

The Golden Temple was a place I was truly sad to leave. I don't know if I will ever be in that kind of presence again, in my lifetime. And -- despite the complications of the rest of Amritsar -- I am so glad I was able to make the journey.


Sirensongs said...

"Why do white people want to see pujas" is an ignorant question. There's no other term for it. *Because we don't get to see them at home,* is the obvious answer.

"You can walk through it in an hour" is another typically Indian comment. My hosts laughed at me for wanting to spend an entire day in Tiruvannamalai. They wanted to "do" the sacred towns of Pondicherry and Tiru together in one day then drive back to Kancheepuram!

Most Indians do not "see" their own country. Good for you for taking your time. I want to spend at least 2 days at the Golden Temple. (Sorry you got sick, though....)

Name said...

Probably a good choice. Only believers are allowed into Tirupathi, though many white people deceitfully sign the papers saying they are believers only to get in and take pictures. At least you showed some respect by not attempting to infiltrate the 7 Hills. You are right that Sikhs are much more open about these sort of things. Of course that could be why their religion is dying out...