Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Back to India

For anyone who's ever looked at this blog: I'm probably going back this coming summer.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Sociology of Religion Coursework

I was up until four last night finishing homework for my Sociology 390 course, all about the sociology of India's religions. It was a really nice combination of academic thought and laid-back attitude - expectations of logos with a healthy dose of pathos mixed in. I emailed it to my professor, who wrote back to tell me he'd gotten it. Then he wrote back again:

Nephi: Thank you for your write-ups, they were a pleasure to read. I especially wish to thank you for your final paper. A teacher can only hope that what he/she teaches falls on those who wish to be taught. An author once said that all learning requires to revelation of ignorance. It is such a life-altering experience to see that God loves everyone, really. One is compelled to reinterpret what were once seen as exclusive statements and doctrines from their own religious tradition and suddenly see in them universality. Again, it was exciting for me as a teacher to see that one was taught. May I use your paper (either with or without your name, up to you) for future students to learn from as well?


I guess I did all right in the course. So here's what I wrote. If you have any thoughts about it, let me know.

My crisis this summer: Is my God in India? Was my idea of God an exclusive, ethnocentric view, blind to whatever truths might be around me just because I wasn't in a place where my American God wasn't immediately available? In a lot of ways, the answer to that question was yes: I couldn't find much of anything in India that I could easily call God. I had learned to call God a Being I could contact and get in touch with when I was alone with my thoughts, in a quiet or remote place. In India that type of situation seemed impossible to find. God for me had been a Father, in some very literal sense of the word, and I was to be like Him. Nothing around me indicated that possibility at all. It had me distressed - until, that is, my final night in India. That night, almost exactly a month ago as I write this now, I came to understand that God understands and appreciates cultures, and reveals truth within cultural contexts to allow humans to live moral, beautiful lives full of light.

One of the main concerns fueling my crisis was the idea - my conviction, really - that Jesus as the Christ performed an atoning sacrifice for the sins of all humanity. The concern stems from that last point - that every person, throughout the world, has been given the gift of the Atonement. If that is true, what of the cultural differences between those who already know about the Atonement and those who know nothing to speak of about it? I stood on a rooftop overlooking Varanasi one morning and wondered how God saw all the people who lived there in that town, those who had perhaps never understood what Christians believe about Jesus, or had never even heard His name. In the case of these people, would Christian belief require the abandonment of cultural values and beliefs? Giving up such a large part of a person's identity sounds like an awful challenge. Does God expect that of them?

That last night in India, in the mosque, I found myself again (as I had before) in the comfortable company of Muslims, this time watching through one-way mirrors from a soundbooth looking over Sunday night's prayers. I'd been invited by a generous bearded man who'd introduced himself as a retired police officer and bought me a Coke; his friend, who ran the mosque's sound, translated the night's Hadith lecture for me, and I found myself feeling there many of the same religious feelings I'd experienced back home - feeling I'd come to identify with the experience of 'feeling the Spirit', learning that something was true by the presence of the Holy Ghost. Something was true there, it occurred to me. And yet how could it be, if Islamic revelation (and Hindu, and Sikh, and, Buddhist and Jain) seemed to contradict Mormonism's apparent monopoly on revelation?

There's where I found a place to resolve my crisis: at the question of ownership. We must not have been the only people on the earth to have acquired revelation from God. An overwhelmingly large percentage of the world's religions contain quite common rules concerning moral and ethical conduct, as well as advice on how to interact respectfully with other people. And yet the sheer number of cultures present among the world's peoples doesn't lend itself toward such striking similarities: one would expect that the gamut of cultures would also result in countless shockingly different moral and ethical codes. In this light, the idea becomes more likely that truths have been given from one Source to peoples willing to live a 'good life' and not developed independently as ideas that merely give us the illusion of universal truth. Smaller discrepancies between behavioral codes, given that God allows cultures to differ, would themselves be allowed to grow and develop naturally, adding variety and interest to the world.

In Bodh Gaya, a couple weeks before my experience at the mosque, I had discussed my crisis with Kem Ramirez, a Peruvian student who had traveled before to Thailand and was one of the group's most familiar with Eastern religions and thought. He said he had been thinking about the same thing, and that something he had learned in previous courses and then traveling was that "it isn't about this life". Having given it some thought, I've come to understand that statement in the following way: that God is an infinite Being who, while indeed working with and for us in the short-term, sees the end from the beginning and maintains a perfect understanding of who we are individually, who we can and will be, and what that will take. Given His understanding of who we are right now, it must be said that He therefore understands us not only as human beings but also as cultural beings working under rather specific paradigms. If that's the case, then the smaller, less important, more 'cultural' precepts that make up specific peoples' codes will be able to be correctetd as we go through the eternities. Some people are working those things out in their own lives now, of course, which will be a benefit to them and others as they go on after this life. But for everyone, this will be a very long process, and in God's eyes that must be all right.

It has been a struggle to return to Provo with these new discoveries. God, working with cultures, has seen fit to restore His Gospel in a country where Puritan piety reigns among the faithful, a certain perfectionism that has wielded some great influence in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You get what you deserve. You work harder and you'll get more. Those who don't have, haven't worked hard enough. Somehow less wealthy, less popular, less beautiful indicates less blessed. My struggle in returning has been, How could God let the Truth be restored in such an environment as this, where our cultural values lead us to a place where we are so prone to judge one another - and thereby keep each other down instead of doing anything to understand and build each other up? Why in the world would He do such a thing? Is it possible that these tenets I've held to so dearly are in fact not Truth?

Actually, there's the value of listening to what the actual scriptures and the Church's highest leaders are teaching us instead of following the practices that have become culturally acceptable. Rather than preaching a religion of judgment, these sources try to convey the importance of patience, of being slow to speak and quick to reflect on a situation, of recognizing the hand of the Divine in people's eternal (and not just terrestrial) lives. The blind man that Jesus healed wasn't afflicted because of anything he or anyone else had done, as some of the more prominent Jews evidently thought; he was just blind, and that was that. Jesus had compassion on the man and healed him, whereas those placing themselves among society's most righteous despised the man for his affliction. There is no reason to do follow along blindly while people make the same mistakes of judgement today; rather, looking for what God teaches will benefit both us and those around us.

What's more, it's here that we find the value of learning from other religious traditions: along with the religion comes a culture that can shed additional, beautiful light on a worldview that we probably thought was already fully illuminated. My experience with Muslims taught me a new reverence for the holiness of God. My time with Sikhs taught me to always be thinking of how to be more honorable my way of greater service to other people around me. From Jainism I understood how little I needed in life. With Hindus it was a respect for others, as they are right now and as they will surely be in the future. Buddhists taught me the power I had within myself to be holy. And Baha'i taught me to find the good in all of these religious traditions. It has been a rather hard road for me these past five months - I can even perhaps say that my foundations have been shaken or that I've had to face what an old roommate used to call the abyss. But learning what I have about God and how He works with men and women in the world, I think I've come to a greater appreciation of all the beauty there is to be had here, and how much learning I still have to do. I expect the answers I've found to these questions will become still more refined, more satisfying, and that that too will present me with some scary times. But I welcome those times and am glad I've already had to wrestle with these questions this summer in India.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

NY Times on Dwindling Zoroastrians

I just found this article on Zoroastrianism on the New York Times' website. I should have been writing up my final paper for anthro 495, my field-research course, but heck this is practically just as good!

We had originally planned on trying to find Zoroastrianism to study while in India for part of our sociology of religion course, but we found it was unlikely. This is a nice insight into one of the big aspects of Zoroastrian culture - the world is seeing fewer and fewer Zoroastrians. There are other related insights in the article.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

A Friend Bikes Southeast Asia

Well I've just gotten an email from my friend and classmate Kem that he's started a new blog. Kem and I were on the India field study together, but he's planned the whole time to stay in Southeast Asia for a while. He tells us he's got quite an affinity for Thailand, and will be cycling through Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos as well. He's at kemramirez.blogspot.com, and his stuff should be pretty good once he gets writing. Maybe he'll throw photos up too. I don't know. Anyway, if you're interested in anything Southeast Asia I think Kem's your man. Oh, and he's Peruvian, too, so he's a good guy to talk to about South America. Wow, Kem's impressive!

Monday, August 28, 2006

I need some feedback....

Okay hi everyone. I'm back in the States safe and sound, and I'm really grateful for the 'safe' part. We're putting together our apartment but we have some naked walls. So we thought, why not blow up some photos I've taken and put them up? To find out what it would look like, we took some pictures. Please give me feedback about what you think!

Monday, August 21, 2006

Homeward Bound...

I can't believe it's over. I'm coming home. I'm in Chennai and soon to head back stateside, back to Utah, and back to a lot of headaches. Schoolwork? Job-work? Financial aid? Man, life's about to get a lot harder.

I spent my last night in India at a mosque in Bangalore, just by chance. I felt like going out alone for a walk, and as the sun was sinking a man sitting outside of the rather largue mosque motioned for me to come over and sit with him. He bought me a Coke and introduced me to his dozens of friends as they walked by in long white shirts and pants, caps on their heads. The time for the call to prayer was coming, and my new friend stood and beckoned me to follow him. We went down through a large underground parking area, then up and up flights of stairs to a room where we removed our shoes as the call to prayer was starting to sound from the loudspeakers in the pink light outside. I removed my shoes, walked through a door to our right, and found myself looking at the man who was doing the call to prayer over the microphone. The room we were now in was full of sound equipment - little lights and knobs and lots of cables - and the man held his hands to his ears and let these melodies float from his lips to the world outside. He sang, paused, sang again, repated the process over and over. I couldn't help but be moved.

The men I was with invited me to have a seat and observe the prayers led by the imam, then a long lecture given by a visiting scholar from Delhi. I was honored. When it was all done, my new friends offered me a Qur'an and left me with embraces, held hands, and kisses on the cheek.

I had felt a few weeks before that I wasn't finding my God in India. Yesterday it occurred to me that an Omnipotent, Omniscient God is working with men's cultures throughout the world to enlighten their lives. I'm glad I had my experience last night, one last night of learning in India.

Can't wait to be home though, of course. I'll see you all soon.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Finishing Up in India. Busy.

We've visited a bunch of cities the past week, and I'm kind of sick of traveling. Which is okay, because I land in SLC on the 22nd. I've got a lot of coursework to cram in the next few days, including transcribing some interviews, finishing my footage notes, and writing up my World Religions and Cultural Proofs work. This is going to take some time.

Oh well. Here are a couple photos. First, from Sravalabelagola (say that five times fast - Kem just decided to pronounce a bunch of random syllables and hope people understood). This is a statue of a Jain deity, I've been told. Or he may have just been a Jain saint, a 'skyclad' ascetic who seeks spiritual progress by rejecting all material things. Notice the vines around his arms. I was unable to find out why they're there, but I wonder if they represent a union with nature, or maybe that he stood there for so long, ascetically, that vines simply grew around him.

Second, the palace at Mysore. A pretty romantic sight - too bad we're on a field study and that public displays of affection are pretty taboo in India. A few Indian guys were playing tag on the grass, and Marc and I joined them. They were a lot faster than Marc and I expected, and we embarrassed ourselves by tripping and falling down. But it was a nice place to be anyway. The guys we were playing with were really cool.

Finally, two photos of something called a Temple Chariot at the museum on the campus of the University of Mysore yesterday. Fascinating stuff - full of carvings meant for public education on religion, historical figures, and even health practices. I've included one photo of special interest to much of our group - a lot of the students were really interested in public health and/or women's health. The carving represents childbirth at the time, the woman giving birth supporting herself on two other women, and the woman behind putting pressure on the belly as the baby comes out. From what I understand, these chariots were used for one village or a group of smaller villages and served as their own sort of social education programs. Very interesting.

Okay, well I'm gone. I'll prolly update one more time before we leave India, and then from the good ol' U-S-of-A. Thanks, everyone, for keeping up with me this summer. I'll have things to write about as the semester goes on this Fall, especially about editing, so be sure to keep checking back. Maybe writing samples, film ideas, etc. I've gotten such good feedback on a lot of my writing that I figure I should keep it up. So thanks. See you soon.