Holy, hey?

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Hinduism’s edicts are unwittingly practiced by Indians of all faiths, says TIM BLIGHT

Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai

A month has passed since Holi, the festival of colours which exploded across northern India. Being in Chennai, I missed the best of it; apart from a couple of colour fights in the old market town of Sowcarpet, it was business as usual in the Tamil capital. I did, however, make it to Nashik, Maharashtra in time for Rang Panchami – a sort of “Holi strikes back” festival five days later! As bhanged-out revellers filled the streets, it got me thinking about the realities of spirituality in modern India.

On one hand, India is a conservative society. In some respects, it is very conservative. In other ways it is more liberal than many western nations. Such pluralism goes to the heart of Hinduism, the subcontinent’s original native religion. Confounding as it is to many westerners, it is carried off effortlessly by India and her people who see no conflict in blending traditions, realities and modernity.

Of course, that is, except for the ones who do. “Hinduism is a religion of understanding, of tolerance,” I have been told many times. “We accept people of every race and religion.” However, many of the people who have told me that would drink a cup of village tap water before allowing their daughter to marry a Muslim! So is Hinduism tolerant and understanding? Yes – in fact, it is even tolerant and understanding enough (although perhaps not approving of) people like the aforementioned parents. It is written in the Gita that Lord Krishna receives all forms of prayer and worship, even from those who don’t recognize his avatar. Vedas also espouse the notion that actions in everyday life are a form of worship in themselves. This point was hammered home when I visited the shrine of Sai Baba in Shirdi, devoted to a man who prayed alternately in a mandir and a mosque.

St Thomas Basilica, Chennai

The push by some groups to transform Hinduism into a militant monolithic faith is therefore quite misguided and concerning. Lets not forget that the practice of the faiths present in India are highly influenced by Hindu teaching. After my visit to Nashik, I spent a day in Mumbai during which I visited Haji Ali’s shrine. Among many Muslims worldwide, prayer at a shrine would be considered blasphemous, lest the corpse be viewed as a deity. However, historical evidence documents the development of Muslim practice in the subcontinent and the building of shrines, similar to Hindu tradition. Both Sai Baba’s shrine and Haji Ali dargah were full of devotees of all faiths. Arguably, neither Sikhism nor Buddhism would exist without the premise of Hinduism. Even the Christians at Saint Thomas’ Basilica in Chennai take their shoes off before entering the building – I haven’t seen that in a church anywhere else!

Perhaps Hinduism’s (not Hindus’) tolerance and understanding is to India’s detriment. Would India have been so easily colonized throughout its history if its people weren’t so disparate, especially with regard to their faith? We’ll never know the answer to that question, but its unlikely to happen again any time soon, thanks to the current climate of nationalism. On the contrary, is India embarking on a cultural colonization of the west? Swami Vivekananda once stood at Kanyakumari, at the end of India, and pledged to spread the word of Hinduism beyond the subcontinent’s shores. Does yoga, the saviour of so many stressed westerners, not have its roots in Hinduism? Across the world, chakras are being stimulated by the practice of ayurveda, currently ‘en vogue’. Even Oprah Winfrey endorses Deepak Chopra, so he must be on to something!

Modern India encompasses the spiritual and the material, and indescribably melds them together into a heady cocktail which is consumed by both westerners and Indians alike. Religious men still attend the temple each morning to perform their pujas, coconut in hand. IT professionals continue on their way to work, plugged into their iPods. Often, they are the same person, and the iPod is just as likely playing the latest filmi hit as religious teachings. This straddling of the modern and the ancient is seen publicly too – in February, NDTV announced that they would air Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s teachings on a podcast!

Back in Chennai, I flicked on the TV and caught sight of Akshay Kumar (a Hindu) and Salman Khan (a Muslim) thrusting together to a song called Wallah Re Wallah (I swear by Allah). My head started to hurt. Following this was a faux-Hindu priest performing satirical gay marriage rites in a video clip from the movie Dostana. I decided to change channels before my head exploded. Over on Colours was Swami Agnivesh, teaching contestants of the Indian version of Big Brother about the importance of being altruistic. Boom!

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