While in Amritsar I visited the Golden Temple, also known as Harmandir Sahib, a place of the utmost holiness in the Sikh community. As the only Westerner within a 2km radius, and a woman travelling solo, I was inevitably looking over my shoulder a little, just to make sure.
I want to trust in the innate goodness of mankind, but then mankind is made up of people: God-fearing, God-loving, free-willed, sometimes wonderful and sometimes frightening when you’re alone and on the road.
Yet those worshipping at Harmandir Sahib showed me otherwise. On previous ventures to temples far and wide, I’ve been jostled and elbowed and made to feel a little less than welcome. But in Amritsar I witnessed nothing but dignity and patience. Queues of the faithful waiting quietly to pay their respects to the priests, as they chanted verses from the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book.
I too waited patiently until I was ushered gently into the inner sanctum – no one batted an eyelid as if to imply I might be trespassing. Instead I was beckoned to sit with a group of men in fine turbans as they swayed, eyes closed, to the music. So I closed my eyes too, and started to sway, and let myself be comforted.
I knew nothing of Sikhism and it didn’t matter. I just had this feeling that everything was going to be okay. It seemed that we were all worshipping in our own way, but also in the same way.
And so this hour or two (or three, who knows) came to an abrupt end when I stepped out onto the streets of Amritsar once again. It’s an old city very much alive with the hustle and bustle of life. So, there I was, momentarily forgetting to look over my shoulder, a standout target. I’d experienced some sort of opening – perhaps of the heart – in that inner sanctum. I’d topped up my trust in mankind and was feeling curious.
Which is why I landed myself in trouble within two minutes. As I was ambling down the street I noticed a small Hindu temple. I paused and eyed up the pundit who was eyeing me up. Then I saw another man waving and beckoning me to come in. In my state of mild euphoria, I gladly followed the smiles and waves like a lamb to the slaughter. I stumbled straight into a scam, which snapped me right out of my trance. I felt foolish for hours afterwards.
But had I turned my back on them would I have scorned myself for being mistrustful?
None of this has anything to do with Hindus versus Sikhs. It has everything to do with people. Nor does it have anything to do with religion. It has everything to do with spirituality.
And all of it has everything to do with love, or lack thereof.
In my openness I became naïve and, in hindsight, I wondered how do you stay open and loving, and protect yourself all at the same time? You can put your faith in a higher power, but you can still get scammed, cheated, robbed and so on. How do you keep your heart from getting hardened by it all?
No matter how holy a place is deemed to be, people change it for the better and for the worse. Watching people worship calls me to worship too. And often moves me to tears – it gives me a sense of strength in our vulnerability as humans and a ‘we’re-all-in-it togetherness’.
I have no fixed idea of God, but I believe that we are all part of something magnificent and loving and universal that’s beyond the understanding of our conscious minds. But not beyond our hearts, should we choose to open them.
Yet it is because our minds cannot grasp such enormity that we gladly go to the temple to find out more. We have faith, but we’re only human, so we also have questions and we want answers. We seek out gurus and pundits and monks and priests who we believe can provide them.
And it is because we hold these holy folk in such high esteem that the not-so-holy folk can take advantage. Alms giving aside, we want guidance and so hand over money in exchange for blessings and such – which can become an act of fear.
And I have seen a lot of fear in holy places, including two standout experiences: the first was at the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka, which houses a sacred relic. Many pilgrims travel from all over to make offerings and pay their respects. Many tourists join them, as did I, and the memories that stuck are ones of an overriding scarcity mentality.
The sense of urgency that permeated the temple was palpable, as people pushed and shoved just to get their piece of Buddha – or so it seemed – as if there wasn’t enough God to go around. It wasn’t as if I wasn’t welcome; and it wasn’t as if people even acknowledged my presence, since they were so keen to get close to the relic.
Yet I recently read in Living Buddha, Living Christ, by Thich Nhat Hanh, that Buddhists do not intend to get attached to Buddhism as a concept. Instead it's the Buddha's teachings that they try to live every day – practicing as well as praying.
So why were they so attached to seeing this relic, when non-attachment is the aim? I felt their fervour, but I didn’t feel love, until I saw one man standing, waiting peacefully. On his back, his best shirt; in his hands, a plate of rice fit to feed a family for a week; in his eyes, something loving and a little lost all at the same time.
I wanted to hug him, to let him know I’m vulnerable too.
My second experience of religious hysteria was at the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi – one of the holiest Hindu temples in the heart of India’s most holy Hindu city. I had read in the guidebook that non-Hindus could enter the temple if they provided proof of ID, a passport, say. From the outset I had the feeling of someone trespassing. And I was, it turns out I had joined a queue not meant for me – there was a whole separate entry system for foreigners.
So I stumbled away from the madding crowd to find this mysterious entrance, asking politely those who might help me find where I might enter the temple. The response was nothing short of terrifying (after four hours walking around the emotional minefield that is Varanasi, the slightest hint of animosity is almost too much).
I got pushed and trampled and even shouted out by a man in a shop. At that point I felt like I had violated something sacred and secret. I felt saddened and ashamed and could not fight my way out of those back alleys quick enough.
There was no sharing of Shiva, which is what I’d come to Varanasi for. I wanted to break down the barriers around my heart and mind. To be exposed to all that man perceives to be born of spirituality and the great unknown. But instead of opening up, I closed down.
It’s such a primal place. All life is there, from the flesh to the soul and everything in between – from burning bodies to burning incense. And I realised that I had walked around those back alleys and up and down the Ghats consumed by fear of getting dirty and broken. Right in front of me was humanity at its most fierce and vulnerable, which reminded me of my own fragility. But where was my fierceness?
I tapped into it briefly on visiting Manikarnika Ghat, otherwise known as the burning ghat, which is the most auspicious place for a Hindu to be cremated. I did exactly as the guidebook told me not to do and found myself following a ‘guide’ up to an isolated balcony where several other men sat around.
In front of me bodies burned in the flames, behind me men burned with desire. I was caught between life and death, so to speak, but totally transfixed by the fires: from ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
The man who stood next to me spoke of how we come into the world with nothing and leave with nothing.
Indeed, we’re born naked, but then we spend our lives hiding our nakedness. We come from love, but then spend our lives simultaneously moving away from and looking for love. In Varanasi the many pilgrims are looking for Moksha, enlightenment, which is found through love – a love that transcends the physical realm. And this makes me wonder if the primitive and filthy nature of the city is the result of pilgrims neglecting their actual physical lives?
Yet we need our bodies to put prayer into practice – to practice compassion through loving action as cited by the Buddhist and Christian faiths. You can sit and pray all day but that’s not going to cut it.
As Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “the Buddha said: If someone is standing on one shore and wants to go to the other shore, he has to either use a boat or swim across. He cannot just pray, ‘Oh other shore, please come over here for me to step across!’ To a Buddhist, praying without practicing is not real prayer”.
Many people come to India to grasp something of their own spirituality: to understand something about life. In fact, Lonely Planet author Sarina Singh puts it perfectly when she writes, ‘just when it’s least expected, you can find yourself up close and personal with moments that have the power to alter the way you view the world and your place in it’.
Wherever you may travel, your journey will both add something to your life and take something away.
It exposes you to new ways of thinking and living that may or may not resonate. What’s important is that you’re open to learning what life is like outside of your silo. Regardless of your religious or irreligious beliefs, stay open and available to all people, whomever their gods may be. All worship is technically a way for us to find love and be loved – you don’t have to be affiliated to this god or that goddess, you can call nature your temple.
And all this sacred verse and incense means nothing without people and the love that we are capable of sharing. But there’s no sharing when preconceptions get in the way.
We must live and let live. We must pray and let pray – or not pray and let pray. We must love and let love.
All spiritual paths essentially lead to the same destination. Whether that’s Moksha or Nirvana or Salvation matters not, what matters is that it all comes down to love: acceptance and non-violence and generosity and curiosity.
I’ve focused heavily on the Buddhist and Hindu cultures because of my travels. So I’m going to throw in a reference to Christianity. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus said: ‘if you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you’.
Bring forth your love so that it will not turn into fear. Don’t be such a grouch, get out there and get yourself dirty and broken. It’s good for the soul because it forces you to either bring forth the love, or let the lack of it destroy you. Take those swindlers in Amritsar, they were simply reminding me that it's okay to get dirty and broken sometimes.
How else do we learn?
Our journey comprises constant juxtaposition between love and fear, light and dark, happy and sad.
A Buddhist might say that everything is an illusion, there is no good or bad.
A Hindu might say that you work through the bad karma to get to the good stuff.
A Christian might say that fear is merely the absence of love. Whatever, we’re all in this together.
And so it goes that just two minutes before the great swindle, I’d stepped out of the Golden Temple, removed my headscarf and approached the locker room to retrieve my shoes. In that moment, a kindly, elderly gentleman in a turban smiled at me, handed me some sweets and said ‘welcome to India’.
As my dear friend once told me, wherever you go, there you are.