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Saturday, January 29, 2000

The Blessings We Seek..

The Blessings We Seek: A photo essay on the fascinating variety of sacred places where people seek blessings -- in hallowed caves, at holy rivers and shrines; and also in the many houses of worship -- all steeped in history and holy legend. The location for this essay is India -- inarguably, the most religiously diverse society on Earth today.

Let's start with the Lotus Temple -- a stunning piece of architecture completed in 1986, it attracts more visitors annually than the Taj Mahal. It is the mother temple of the Baha'i faith in the Subcontinent (seen here photographed in New Delhi, 2004).

Warning: editorial diversion: It's one thing to talk about religious tolerance and the underlying sameness of all the world's religions but another to put it into practice. How many of us are at a mosque, temple or church that is not our "own"? How many of us are reading (with an open mind) texts from different religious traditions, and, perhaps, even trying to attempt "foreign" religious practices?

The sad fact is, however, that we are caught in a bit of a trap -- while intellectual notions of religious tolerance are attractive, strict adherence to our own religious tradition generally implies rejection of the "other" -- meaning negation of the other "book", the other "spiritual intermediary", the other "beliefs and practices", the other "house of worship" and so on.

And, thus religion, as can be historically seen (and currently observed), has unfortunately served to divide man into incompatible islands of belief, fortified by the thick walls of religious dogma, that face off in perpetual ideological antagonism rather than bringing about any real hope of peace or promised religious utopia to the confused lot that is mankind.

Against this backdrop, the Baha'i Faith's  top 3 beliefs: Unity of God, Unity of religion and Unity of humankind are truly progressive but followed only by the faith's miniscule population of about 7 million worldwide compared to the billions of "religious traditionalists". It is comforting, however, to know that of the tens of millions of visitors to the Lotus Temple, the vast majority are non Baha'is. What is not comforting is the fact that followers of such a noble faith should face stiff persecution; especially in the land of their founder and the rest of the Middle East where Baha'i's are considered apostates from Islam and not followers of a separate religion.

Moving from one temple to the next -- this time at the holy lake of Pushkar [photos taken in 2004], site of a rare temple to the Creator in the Hindu Trinity. Surrounded by hundreds of other temples, the site is rich in legend and visited by millions of pilgrims. This scenic lake is in the arid state of Rajasthan, surrounded by the Aravalli Hills where faith has been severely tested -- many of the temples in the area having been destroyed by the Mughul emperor Aurangzeb (considered by some to be the 'Hitler' of his time) in the 17th century -- but now thriving once again as a popular pilgrimage site (read about this lake in Wikipedia).

Near Pushkar, is the Sufi shrine of Ajmer-e-Sharif dedicated to Gharib Nawaz (benefactor of the poor), Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti. This is probably the most renowned Sufi site in the Subcontinent and is visited by Hindus and Muslims alike in keeping with the syncretic tradition of this mystical branch of Islam. The shrine was famously visited by the Mughal Emperor Akbar on foot in 1562 -- and he received the blessings he sought: a son who would later become Jehangir. The Sufi strain of Islam has done more to develop inter-faith understanding than any other.

Haridwar, like Ajmer, is also a pilgrimage site -- it is in the "top 10" of holy places for Hindus and marks the descent of the sacred Ganges into the plains of Northen India. It is very much a temple town and the evening "Aarti" at the Ghats is an unforgettable experience -- throngs of devotees, chanting devotional songs, and the lighting of prayer lamps -- all make for a spiritually electric atmosphere (seen here in photos taken in 2004).

Now over to Buddhism -- a religion based on the teachings of Siddharth Gautam; it not a theistic path but focuses on developing a true understanding of human nature and the cause of suffering; and, explores the path of meditation to achieve liberation from the cycle of human suffering. While traveling in Northeastern India in 2005, I came across the Buddhist Salugara Monastery. This is a Tibetan-run institution (website) that offers classes in Buddhist philosophy and culture; another example of how Tibetan culture is thriving outside of Tibet rather than inside it -- like the Bahai's,  they are persecuted for their beliefs and way of life in their historical homeland.

Farther South in the state of Tamil Nadu, dated to the 7th century, is the UNESCO World Heritage site of Mahabalipuram. This site consists of carved granite monoliths -- temples, sculptures and other monuments depicting various aspects of Hindu legend.

Devotees can receive blessings at the coastal temple town of Mahabalipuram from a granite elephant (center) but, as also as shown [upper left], from a live temple elephant at the many temples in the nearby town of Kanchipuram today.

Also carved from stone, but in Western India, are the Ellora Caves; these are again a world heritage site. Dating from the 7th century, the caves consist of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain temples. As such, they represent a tremendous symbol of religious co-existence and harmony among these three faiths.

Not so harmonius, however, as depicted in the upper right corner of the collage, is a picture of the Raghunath Temple in Jammu (Jammu & Kashmir State). Unfortunately, this photograph (taken in 2004) shows armed guards at the bunkers in the front of the temple. The reason they are there is to prevent a repeat of the terrorist attacks that occurred in 2002 which killed many innocent devotees (see article on attacks) because of their faith.

Finally, back to the West Coast of India -- the idyllic state of Goa. It was Francis Xavier who was the first Jesuit to arrive in India in 1542 (the pictures shown are from the St. Francis Xavier church in Goa taken in 2005). The Jesuits are a society of the Catholic Church whose mission is to propagate the doctrine of their faith worldwide. Besides organizing conversions of the local populace, Xavier also requested, what was then in vogue in Europe, the establishment of an Inquisition in Goa (see Goa Inquisition). Xavier's request was granted; and from the time the Inquisition started (in 1560) to when it was (thankfully) abolished in 1812, thousands of people in Goa had been persecuted and hundreds of Hindu temples destroyed.

For all the blessings we seek, perhaps the greatest should be the blessing of peaceful coexistence. And, our first step in deserving this blessing needs to go beyond striving for "tolerance"; and, instead, reaching for acceptance -- acceptance of diversity in creed and religious thought and the rejection of religious supremicism.

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