The Visible India

" Hinduism is an imaginative, an 'image-making,' religious tradition in which the sacred is seen as present in the visible world--the world we see in multiple images and deities, in sacred places, and in people, The notion of darsan calls our attention, as students of Hinduism, to the fact that India is a visual and visionary culture, one in which the eyes have a prominent role in the apprehension of the sacred. For most ordinary Hindus, the notion of the divine as 'invisible' would be foreign indeed. God is eminently visible although human beings have not always had the refinement of sight to see. Furthermore, the divine is visible not only in temple and shrine, but also in the whole continuum of life-in nature, in people, in birth and growth and death. . .

"India presents to the visitor an overwhelmingly visual impression. It is beautiful, colorful, sensuous. It is captivating and intriguing, repugnant and puzzling. It combines the intimacy and familiarity of English four o'clock tea with the dazzling foreignness of carpisoned elephants or vast crowds bathing in the Ganga during an eclipse. India's display of multi-armed images, its processions and pilgrimages, its beggars and kings, its street life and markets, its diversity of peoples-all appear to the eye in a kaleidoscope of images. Much that is removed from public view in the modern West and taken into the privacy of rest homes, asylums, and institutions is open and visible in the life of an Indian city or village. The elderly, the infirm, the dead awaiting cremation-these sights, whole they may have been expunged from the childhood palace of the Buddha, are not isolated from the public eye in India. Rather, they are present daily in the visible world in which Hindus, and those who visit India, move in the course of ordinary activities. In India, one sees everything. One sees people at work and at prayer; one sees plump, well-endowed merchants, simple renouncers, fraudulent 'holy' men, frail widows, and emaciated lepers; one sees the festival procession, the marriage procession, and the funeral procession. Whatever Hindus affirm of the meaning of life, death, and suffering, they affirm with their eyes open wide."
Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India

Banaras, a City of Rituals

"In September of 1965, with a new group of friends from the summer of language study in Madison, I arrived in India. There was not much in Bozeman or Northhampton, or even in Patzcuaro, that could have prepared me for Banaras, a vibrant, congested city sitting high on the banks of the river Ganges. Its intensity was overwhelming. I had been in Banaras only a few days when I wrote home,' Wandering half-scared through the side-walk narrow streets near the Chowk market today was an exhausting experience, exhausting because it was if I had walked through all of India, seen, felt, tasted, and smelled it in three hours. There were too many people, too many faces, too many cows, too many catacomb streets and dead ends, too little air. The utter concentration of life, work, misery, odor, filth, in this area of the city was staggering.'

"Despite my feelings of claustrophobia and bewilderment, I was immediately impressed by the religiousness of Banares. There religion was surely the most important observable fact of daily life. The whole city seemed to revolve on a ritual axis. There were temples everywhere, large and small, whole multi-armed forms I could not even distinguish one from the other, and whose significance was totally beyond my grasp. The bathing ghats along the Ganges were the scene of mourning rituals for pilgrims. We had not been there more than a day or two when we rose before dawn and took rickshaws to the riverfront to see the sights for which Banaras is so famous. Thousands of Hindus were there at Dasahwamedh Ghat, chanting to a crescendo of bells as the run rose over the river, Perhaps the one piece of my Montana past that I brought with me to the comprehension of that first dawn on the Ganges was 'morning watch.' For two miles along the ghats, Hindus bathed in the Ganges and worshipped as the sun broke the horizon. The city pulsed with the life of faith as vibrant as any I had known, and as different."
Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banares

My Christian Faith and India's Gift to Me

Seeing that tryptich in the temple in Trivandrum, with its three glimpses of a God larger than one could fully comprehend, was a moment of recognition for me, and the experience of God's presence there was desirable only as worship. My experience as a Christian was surely different from that of the Hindus pressed against me on the either side. But we shared the sense of delight and revelation as the doors were opened, and perhaps some sense of both the majesty and the mystery of the Divine. I thought of nothing at the time. It was a moment of total presence, not of reflection. But as I left the temple, looking frequently back through door upon door, light and shadow, in the direction of Vishnu resting upon the serpent called Endless, I began thinking about what we Christians call the trinity, the threefold vision of God as creator, redeemer, and spirit. I could not get it out of my mind-this triple yet singular revelation of the one God, the glimpses we had through the doors that were opened upon his presence, the overwhelming sense that no vantage point could enable us to see the whole.

"The image of Vishnu at Padmanabhaswamy both challenged and enlarged my own concept of God. I remember a title on the shelf of the library in the Methodist church in Bozeman: Your God Is Too Small. And he was. As one theological liberation movement after another has discovered, 'he' also too male, too white, and too much at home in Western culture. India's theological gift to me has been the discovery that God can be addressed as Mother, can wear the ashes of the cremation pyre, or can beckon us to dance. It should not surprise us to recognize the God of Abraham and Sarah in the Trivandrum or Banaras of God is indeed the One we say God is-the creator of heaven and earth and all that is therein. As Swami Chidananda, of today's sages of Rishikesh, in northern India, puts it, 'The Christian churches are only two thousand years old. Before that God was not in hibernation!'

"Each of us brings religious or ethical criteria to our understanding of the new worlds we encounter. When I 'recognize' God's presence in a Hindu temple or in the life of a Hindu, it is because, through the complex of God, Christ, and Spirit, I have a sense of what God's presence is like. Recognition means that we have seen it somewhere before. I would even say that it is Christ who enables Christians-in fact, challenges us-to recognize God especially where they don't expect to do so and where it is not easy to do so."
Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banares

A New Religious America

"Envisioning the New America in the twenty-first century requires an imaginative leap. It means seeing the religious landscape of America, from sea to shining sea, in all its beautiful complexity. Between the white New England churches and the Crystal Cathedral of southern California, we see the sacred mountains and the homelands of the Native peoples, the Peace Pagota amid maples in Massachusetts, the mosque in the cornfields outside Toledo, the Hindu temples pitched atop the hills of Pittsburgh and Chicago, the old and new Buddhist temples of Minneapolis. Most of us have seen too little of this new religious America. But having seen what I have seen, with my own eyes and through the eyes of my students and colleagues, this is the landscape that I now all home. This is the America I find rich and full of promise precisely because of all it embraces."
A New Religious America: How a 'Christian Country' Has Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation