Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Culture, Part Ek

About 79% of Americans identify themselves as Christians. In India, 83% of the population is Hindu.

Since I knew so little about the many-armed gods who watch over me while I eat samosas and saag paneer at my favorite Indian restaurants, I decided to do a little reading. And here is my first mind-bender:

Hinduism is monotheistic. Well, it's monotheistic and polytheistic. "How can this be?" you ask skeptically.

Consult the Bhagavad Gita, one book of the Mahabharata, an epic poem eight times longer than The Odyssey and The Iliad combined. In the Gita, Krishna (God in human form) speaks directly to a warrior who is in the middle of an existential crisis. Krishna tells him that regardless of who or what people worship, they worship one true god:
However men try to reach me,
I return their love with my love;
whatever path they may travel,
it leads to me in the end (73).
In case it isn't evident from this short snippet, I have happened on a poetic and moving translation of the Gita by Stephen Mitchell, who describes the text as "...a love song to reality, a hymn in praise of everything excellent and beautiful and brave, the core from which all the glories and horrors of the universe unfold" (23).

With lyricism that could hypnotize an atheist, Mitchell translates God's description of himself:

I am the beginning and the end,
origin and dissolution,
refuge, home, true lover,
womb and imperishable seed.

I am the heat of the sun,
I hold back the rain and release it;
I am death and the deathless,
and all that is or is not (116, 117).
There's still a lot I don't know about the Hindu faith. Those pictures of gods with animal heads and rainbow complexions may still vex me for now, but I feel like they're less important than the universal beauty I've seen at the heart of the Bhagavad Gita.

Mitchell, Steven. Bhagavad Gita. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2000.

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