Sunday, March 04, 2007

We Don’t Want BabyG to Throw Herself into a Fire, But...

About a month ago, MaGreen and I took BabyG to a Hindu temple for the first time. Our friend Melissa was selling us a used bike and she lives to the southeast of Houston. We decided to meet her halfway at the Sri Meenakshi temple in Pearland.

Completed in 1982, the Meenakshi temple is one of the oldest Hindu temples in the United States. Loosely modeled on the original Meenakshi temple in Madurai, the temple is made up of a walled compound with five buildings inside. The walls are covered with icons and symbols. Over the years, the temple society has added ancillary buildings behind and to the side of the temple. They have housing for priests and guests, a fenced yard for peacocks, a cafeteria, classrooms, a library and bookstore, and a community hall. When the temple was built, Pearland was a little town past Houston’s outer suburbs. The land around the temple was just open fields. Now Pearland has become a true ex-urb of Houston and a trailer park sits across from the temple. It’s odd to come upon the temple out there, to see all the software engineers in their Camry’s sharing the two-lane country roads with pick-up trucks. Something about that temple makes it dear to my heart. The odd setting suits me. I love the peacocks, the temple food, and the books. The temple itself is clean and efficient. The priests are skilled at performing sacraments. And I have memories of past visits with aunts, uncles, my brother and sister-in-law, and my parents.

So after we met up with Melissa, all four of us went into the temple. I asked the priest in the main building to do a blessing. He gave us some fruit to eat as prasad. I donated money and asked the volunteer cashier if they had any special ceremonies going. She pointed us to one of the corner temples, which we walked to. Priests were chanting and making offerings to a goddess. They bathed her in milk and honey. They rang bells. About twenty people were gathered sitting in two rows. I could not recognize the deity, so I asked a man sitting next to me who this goddess was.

He said her name. It was a long, multi-syllabic South Indian name. I believe it was Kannika Parameshwari, but I’m not sure.

“Is she an incarnation of Kali or Durga or another goddess?” I asked. “What is the story?”

“Are you Hindu?” he asked glancing at the two white people with me. I said yes.

“Actually, you see, there was a young woman. When the Muslims invaded, the Muslim king saw her. He looked at her and desired her. The young woman knew this. And according to the old Hindu laws, even for man to look at a woman in this way is the equivalent of marrying. But she would not consent to such a thing and she threw herself into a fire. Today is the anniversary of the day when she sacrificed herself,” he said.

We remained for a few more minutes and listened to the chants. We had never planned to sit for an entire puja, so we left. I was embarrassed that the ceremony commemorated such a troubling story. It starts with war, occupation, and religious oppression. Then it moves on to the possibility of rape or forced marriage. There’s a reductive, patriarchal notion of the male gaze. That a man’s gaze defines all social relations. And it ends with an act that has a terrible history in India and an even worse present – bride burning. Why would I want to expose BabyG to this religion?

Many liberal people in the United States look at Hinduism as this open, accepting religion with non-violence at its core. Many Hindus have portrayed Hinduism in just that way. Hindus believe in many incarnations of a single, unknowable divine energy, including women and trees and animals and half-animal-half-humans. Buddha came out of Hinduism. So did Gandhi. So on and so forth. But Hinduism, like every single other religion, has a sordid history of racisms, sexisms, caste-isms, and classisms. You could argue that oppression is a constituitive element of Hinduism, that you cannot divide the bad parts out or sheild your kids from them. Our little trip to the Meenakshi temple is a case in point for that view.

On the other hand, as Amartya Sen documented in The Argumentative Indian and explained in my interview with him, the South Asian tradition from antiquity to present has a remarkable diversity of thought and belief. Within Hinduism, there have been debates about agnosticism and atheism since Vedic times. Radical efforts to end caste injustice date back to the birth of Buddhism and Jainism. There’s the Bhakti movement with figures like Mirabhai and Narsinh Mehta who created a discourse of gender and caste egalitarianism in their lyrical poetry. There’s Gandhi and Ambedekar. Why not count Kancha Ilaiah, Gayatri Spivak and Amartya Sen as part of the tradition?

I don’t think abandoning history and tradition is the way. I don't want to hide my baby's background from her and tell myself that's progress. I want her to feel that she can enter into the deep Indian traditions without regarding them as other. We can teach her to "read against the grain" or to understand the tradition as a spirited exchange of ideas. By ideas I don't mean dry logic or abstruse philosophy only, but all ideas, including those informed by nonrational experience. May the debates encompassed within our stories, songs, poetry, slokas, mantras, and iconography help her negotiate life.


BookGirl said...

De-lurking to let you know reading your blog often makes me nostalgic for Houston -- something I never thought I'd say. I spent most of my life in Houston, and I never knew this temple existed. There are so many interesting places out in the exurbs of Houston -- the Forbidden Gardens in Katy comes to mind.

It also looks like the activist "scene" is much improved since I was a part of it ~8+ years ago. I guess a war will do that.

Sid said...

I find it very interesting that there are people convert in and out of religions. This clearly shows that no religion is perfect (or at least, not everyone is exposed to the real nature of religions which make them convert out) and it all boils down to individual attitudes and philosophies.

I was born Hindu and call myself an atheist and a Buddhist.

I have written a post on some extreme religious activity that is currently plaguing my country.