There is so much crammed into these days. It's hard to know where to begin. I have drive time en route to Agra later today, so I will try do do more reflecting and less reporting in those posts.
Yesterday was focused on interfaith exploration. We began the day traveling to the offices of Swami Agnivesh, an activist and former secretary of education in the Indian state of Harayana. The drive there was the usual adventure, and then we arrived at a police road block at a site reserved for public protest. Since the horrific rape and subsequent death of a young medical student in December, citizens have been actively demonstrating, and the protest square was ramping up with protests and media for a busy Saturday. We unloaded and walked through the protests. We spoke a bit with people and the media. One man shared with us his affection for President Obama. He couldn't really articulate why... Just a healthy enthusiasm for his reelection. In the center of the square, they were performing burial rituals for the young woman, complete with an effigy. As I understand it, there are specific Hindu burial rituals. The young woman was hastily cremated and there is local suspicion of some cover-up and manipulation of the story. The protesters were providing the appropriate fire rituals in the square. They are calling for the death penalty for those involved. It is an emotional time.
We visited the Swami and learned some of his teaching. He is very concerned that religions are idolatrous and keep us from doing and being the people we should. He shared a bit about his meditation process. I was most compelled by his assertion that God is in every cell of our bodies. When we are aware of that, revere that, honor that, how can we not live differently. Honoring the totality of physical experience, I want to rave just a bit about the chai served at his office! I am committed to exploring the art of good chai moving forward. I will wax poetic in a later post. The Swami was a beautiful man with a gentle soul and a sweet spirit. At the same time, I imagine him to be a skilled negotiator and activist. In the seminary world, we often talk about public theology, a way of referencing how we live our beliefs in the totality of our lives, shaping our engagement in policy, economy, education. In India, those skilled at this call themselves activists.
Then we moved on to a Sikh temple called Gurudwara Banglasahib. On this particular day, they were celebrating an anniversary of something ( details escape me here) and so it was a very busy place as the faithful came to pray. We left our shoes (and socks) behind, covered our heads appropriately, and entered. We started walking through a foot bath (it is cold here!). The outside of the temple was decorated with arrangements of red roses, white carnations and palm fronds. Inside, a leader read from the holy book while the faithful sat and listened, prayed and made offerings. As we departed, we were offered a special food, a mixture of flour, water, sugar...a gift received not unlike communion host with both hands. The person who provided our orientation indicated the importance of hospitality and a recognition of our common humanity. Anyone receives this hospitality without question. Beyond the observance then of ritual, the temple also serves 20,000 meals to the community each day, completely free of charge. Because it was a celebration day, they expected to serve twice that number. We entered a large hall, were seated in long rows on rugs with the bare floor in front of us. Another group was seated facing us. We were given a metal tray and servers came along with buckets of food. There is a clear expectation that no food should be wasted so you kind of had to be on your toes to not be over-served. The meal included a lentil dish, rice, roti (bread), and a nut based sweet which was like a peanut butter ball crossed with Halvah. We were given a spoon. No one ate until the facing rows were all served. Then we ate together. The gentleman across from us was generous in providing good social cues about when and how to eat. Then we were quickly finished and hustled away so the hall could be prepared for the next seating. I would guess the were feeding 500 in about 15 minutes. The entire operation was volunteer driven. We then toured their kitchen, an amazing operation with huge pots, a prep area where the peeled and chopped mounds of potatoes and onions, a fascinating assembly line of women kneading and shaping roti. They had a machine that cooked and moved the roti like tortilla machines in some tex-mex restaurants.
We departed and had a harrowing drive into Old Delhi. Traffic was intense with many more ricks haws, bicycles and ox carts on the roads.our destination was a mosque, Jamia Masjid. The structure was vast. 400 years old. Because we arrived just as a call to prayer began, we had to wait to enter (the sign said women were not permitted during prayer times or 30 minutes prior to sunset. Again shoeless with heads covered, we walked around. We didn't get much cultural orientation at this particular site. The central courtyard wad probably three stories above street level with a central pol where one woman cleaned her feet, arms, face, and then rinsed her mouth (in that order) while pigeons shared the pool nearby. The main worship area was built with really large intricately cut stone. Looking out from the edges of the structure was a great bird's eye view in four directions. We watched a group of men cooking below. The road surrounded the mosque like a traffic circle. As we left, we could see the range of merchants set up outside- a block do stalls selling different kinds of dates, another block of auto parts, another area of fishing nets. Similar vendors clumped together. The mosque created a centralized community where religion and commerce intermingled.
Our last stop was the Indian Islamic Cultural Center where we were received as guests in an interfaith dialogue with faith leaders. As an American, it seemed strange to participate in an interfaith dialogue without Jewish representation, but there is no active Jewish community in India. The juxtaposition of social class at this event against the places we had seen up to this point was intense. These were privileged, educated people and it was evident in their dress, their social conventions, their dialogue, their concerns. The fabrics were opulent. The shoes were immaculate. The conversation was strategic and broad. We then shared a beautiful buffet of rich food, lots of ghee, lots of cheese, rich sauces and complex spices. A different experience after the simple fare of the Sikh temple. There is more space for reflection about the contrasts, but that will happen over time.