Dialogue of Spirituality
Once, while I was walking along the main street I met one of my Hindu friends and we decided to walk together as we were headed in the same direction. It was late on a Friday afternoon and we were passing the Hindu temple at Bambalapitiya. The Hindu friend asked me if I could wait for five minutes while he went into the temple to worship. I agreed, and stayed outside looking at the magazines displayed at the tobacconist near the entrance to the temple. My friend was back in five minutes to continue the conversation we had begun.
Some time later I had to write a paper on Hindu worship and decided to look more closely at what happened in the Hindu temple. Several things struck me that I had not noticed before. As one enters the temple at the time of the puja, the first thing one experiences is the special aroma from the camphor and incense that are being burned in front of the deity. Then, one’s eyes are filled with religious sculputre and paintings, the image beautifully clothed and garlanded, and the arathi, the lamp that is raised in front of the image several several times in circular motions, both as a mark of respect and as the prayer of invocation. The ears are filled with the sounds of the chanting of the mantra, the ringing of the bells and the beating of the drums. Now the priest brings to those gathered the prasad from the altar (a mixture of milk, water and fruit), and having received it, and having “seen” and “been seen” by the deity (dharshan), one prostrates oneself on the ground and rises again, invoking the name of the deity representing God at that temple: “Siva, Siva!”, “Om Muruga”, “Om Sakthi”, “Govinda” and so on. Once this brief act of worship is over, the devotee is free to leave.
I realised that through three thousand years of experimentation. Hindus have developed a special “strategy” of catering to all the senses in a single act of worship – of smell, sight, hearing, taste and touch – all at once and with much intensity, to help the devotee to “rise to the awareness of standing in the presence of God”. If worship has to do primarily with standing in the presence of God, of dharsana or seeing and being seen by God, there was no need to tarry much longer. Little wonder that my Hindu friend was able to complete the worship in five minutes.
A surprise awaited me when I shared this with the Hindu friend. Impressed with what I had to say about Hindu worship, he asked if he could come to one of my Sunday services. His contact with Christian worship had not gone beyond school assemblies. Of course I had to extend to him an invitation to my church at Moor Road at 6:00 the following Sunday where I was to lead the worship and preach. But I was nervous, especially after my “discovery” of the multifaceted nature of Hindu worship catering to all the senses all at once. At Moor Road church we had a little wooden cross standing on the bare altar table and a vase of flowers. Then there were of course rows and rows of pews. Apart from that, there was nothing to “see”, nothing to “smell”, nothing to “taste” and nothing to “touch”.
I suddenly realised that we Methodists have put all our eggs in the one basket of “hearing”. Prayers, hyms, readings, sermons – all cater to the one sense of “hearing”. Little wonder, I told myself, that while the Hindu can worship in five minutes, we must take an hour or more, and that on each occasion the sermon must make up for all that is lacking, in order to enable those present to “rise to the awareness of standing in the presence of God”. Well, we may have got used to the ‘hymn sandwich” (hymn – prayer – hymn – readings – hymn – sermon – hymn), but will a Hindu be satisfied with “one-sense” worship?
On Sunday I stuck to the traditional pattern with the usual “stirring” sermon. I saw my Hindu firend seated in the last row. At the end of the service I went around greeting to people, and when I came to my Hindu friend, to my surprise he was deeply excited. It had been a wonderful experience for him. We decided to meet to talk about it. “So what was so wonderful about the worship?”, I asked him the next day, wondering if he was being “nice” to me, as we say in Sri Lanka. No, he was not being “nice” to me.
“You have been to our temple”, he said, “and you have seen how we come and go during the puja. There is no common intention; we all stand there as individuals. But in the church there were some three hundred people all seated quietly with the same intention to pray: “And then”, he continued, “in the temple we do not read the scripture, the priest does not explain the scripture and apply it to life”. I remembered that in the Hindu tradition teaching and priestly ministries are usually separated. The priest does not teach; he performs the rituals. There is no teaching done with the puja. Teaching, when it happens, takes place outside the worship context.
He was also impressed with the intercession, how we remembered members in need by name, how we prayed of peace, justice and so on. It had altogether been a spiritually enriching experience for him. Obviously his other senses had not been complaining! But this was a revealing experience for me. Here was I, a Methodist minister, going into a Hindu temple and discovering dimensions of worship long lost to the Methodist tradition. And here is a Hindu, coming into a Methodist worship to discover dimensions of worship missing in his worship experience.
I often recall this experience when we talk about dialogue in general to illustrate how dialogue leads to mutural correction, mutural enrichment and mutually helpful self-criticism. I also use it to stress the point that Diana Eck, moderator of the World Council of Churches’ Sub-unit on Dialogue, used to make: “We not only need to know the others; we also need the others to know ourselves”. It is no wonder that most people who have ventured into other spiritual traditions have found their own faith enriched, and those who are involved with other faiths see interfaith worship as something that the churches should take with greater seriousness as they look towards the future.
Not Without My Neighbour: Issues in Interfaith Relations
Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs - Federation of Asian bishop’s conferences
DIALOGUE ?, Resource manual for CATHOLICS IN ASIA,
Editor Edmund Chia, FSC, 2001, p.164-165.