Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Where’s the God?


Once upon a time—about sixteen years ago—I read with intense longing the accounts in The American Baha’i of the amazing numbers of Baha’is in India. I had little desire to visit Haifa but much to experience the swarm of believers I envisioned from these reports. So when I was short-term pioneering in southeast Asia I took my opportunity to fly to Delhi.

After my months of service, a sludge of fatigue filled my limbs, and gravity seemed to have a special affinity for me. I had learned a lot, given a lot. And what was the state of my own heart? I didn’t know anymore. I wrote in my journal that I felt like I needed to sit and sit and sit and do nothing for a long time. When the driver dropped me off inside the front gate of the Baha’i house of worship in New Delhi, I paused a moment to look for the first time at this long-imagined place. Then I began the walk with mindfulness and happy anticipation.

On that ordinary, non-holiday day, there weren’t very great numbers of people, but certainly a steady flow. I checked my shoes before the temple steps, with the men whose heads just stuck up above ground from the room of shelves and shoes below the promenade. These days I don’t even take a shower without shoes on, I have such problems with my feet, and couldn’t walk that short pilgrimage and scale all those steps even with my feet clad. But at the time, this small ritual delighted me. We didn’t do this at the temple in Wilmette. I wasn’t in Wilmette.

Barefoot, I walked the rest of my short pilgrimage and scaled all those steps. Then the strangeness began. The temple guides greeted me like something they had never experienced before—what a novelty, a freak of nature, a never-imagined creature: an individual Baha’i coming to pray and meditate. I was only slightly less rare to the longer-term staff, and they quickly targeted me as possible labor.

I turned down, though, the director’s invitation to scrub the temple floor in the early morning hours with the staff and guides—certainly worthy work—and reiterated my need for rest and contemplation. How is it, I wondered, that prayer and meditation receive so little recognition, here of all places?

Despite the distractions, I did pray and meditate, returning several days. I sat for long stretches listening to the steady passage of people through the temple. Women in brilliant saris with bangles on their ankles and wrists made a gentle music as they walked. The doors opened and closed episodically. Rustle, patter, jingle, whispers, silence. My prayers felt empty and meaningless.

I didn’t expect all or even most of the people visiting the house of worship to be Baha’is, but to be the only one, that was an impossibility in my American Baha’i–fed visions. I arranged my trip specifically to be present for a holy day celebration, and I was—me and the temple staff and guides. Granted, it was the midday commemoration of the martyrdom of the Bab, which fell that year on a weekday. Still.

I thought walking meditation might break the alienation spell that seemed to constrain my encounter with this place. So I walked around the back of the temple. From different angles, especially up close, it looked graceful, lonely, austere. But when I stepped out on one of the paths a guard urgently scurried after me and blew a whistle at me. Alienation successfully confirmed.

The temple director later explained that people had been picnicking and engaging in other unnamed inappropriate activities on the grounds so they had prohibited all freer motion. I sat with him in his underground office and studied his remaining white hair and the odd shape of his head. He worked me over diligently with greedy descriptions of the teaching opportunities in China and extracted a weak commitment from me to serve there next. My fluency in Indonesian didn’t matter or my familiarity with Indonesian culture. I could start over in China. China was the place to go. The opportunities must be seized! I asked my journal: Is the Baha’i Faith just, endless, never-ceasing activity?

I had come seeking to be one of many. I found myself a lonely anomaly. I adjusted my reality-sense and received the experience in a different way, as less of a pilgrimage and more of a truth-telling. I had loved the Indian space in my imagination, inhabited by so many Baha’is. But I didn’t want to feed on an illusion, and I let this one dissipate in the summer heat. I turned my attention instead to understanding what I could of the real state of affairs.

The temple had an air of busy, beautiful futility. All the guides were from other countries and didn’t speak the languages of the temple visitors. I learned from them that, although tens of thousands of Indians visited the Lotus Temple every week, no one could talk to them about the Faith. The overwhelming majority didn’t speak English and couldn’t read their native tongues. So, although some people could buy books in Hindi or other Indian languages and take them away, mostly even that avenue of communication was closed. They entered the Temple through the one door of nine that had been designated the entrance, looked around, wondered where the god was, and exited, awed and baffled, through the door which had been designated the exit.

Attending a gathering at the national center (about twelve people present, including guides from the house of worship) and a feast (about twelve people present, including guides from the house of worship) explained the lack of Indian Baha’is at the Temple. There were no more people at feast there than I would see at feast in Vermont, and the way of doing things was really no different either. The difference was that in Vermont almost all the people at feast actually live there permanently. At this feast most of the people were not from India but had come from other countries to serve temporarily at the house of worship. Supposedly, a great number of Indian Bahai’s lived out in the provinces. Maybe they did. Supposedly, attempts had been made to get them to come and serve at the house of worship but had not succeeded.

One need not suppose anything to see that the Baha’i house of worship in New Delhi was not built by or for a local worshipping community, nor even for a national or regional worshipping community. It wasn’t really built for worship at all—apart from the hoped-for future—but to get attention for the Faith. It was built to attract new Baha’is, to be a silent teacher. As such, it must be among the most resource-inefficient proselytizing efforts ever. When asked, the coordinator of the guides told me of a few stories of individual visitors becoming Baha’is; considering the millions who visit each year, this hardly seems a good take.

I felt uneasy driving away from the house of worship each day past the hundreds of shanties that were its nearest neighbors. People do not only need food, shelter and clothing, but I think building a trophy temple in a community where the Baha’is did not yet need such a large worship space was the wrong way to go. This strategy of preemptive capital investment has not been good for the development of the Faith. It has made the Faith top-heavy and concentrated its resources centrally, where they do little for the vitality of community life. I know—it’s just my opinion.

No doubt the temple has been very important to people. The servant who did the cooking and basic cleaning in the apartment where I stayed with the father of a friend wanted to go with me to the temple one day. She dressed up in her best sari, and we went. Some months later I received a request from my friend for another copy of the picture of Kamala at the temple; Kamala had shown it to another servant who had ripped it up in jealousy.

Indians will make their own meanings of the temple, as Indian culture has done with foreign input for centuries. Baha’is have made this particularly easy. The down side of using a ready-made, high-potency symbol such as the lotus in India without any process of new, specifically Baha’i meaning accruing to that symbol is that Indians need not know anything about the Baha’i Faith to see the temple as meaningful. Of course it’s meaningful. Of course they want to visit it. It’s a lotus! From one angle this is a boon; from another, the undoing of the whole endeavor.

As an example of how Indians are making cultural use of the Lotus Temple, I like particularly the news item I read, thanks to Baha’is Online, of a small-scale copy of the temple built as part of a pandal, a temporary structure constructed in tribute to Durga for the festival Durga Puja. One could hardly complain of this appropriation, since the temple is itself an appropriation. The replica sat atop the boxy structure, looking in the picture like a bright pink, many-pointed hat. And the inside of the pandal was done up right: no baffling void here, but the images, shaped from stainless steel, of many gods and goddesses.



(Note: The Information Center at the temple had not yet been constructed when I visited India.)

9 comments:

dmaxx said...

Dear Priscilla,

It is regretable that you found the lack of spirituality at the Lotus Temple to be its most prominent feature. It is indeed a beautiful structure.

I am an Orthodox Baha'i, and visited the temple about ten years ago with one of the Indian Orthodox Baha'is. At the time, I was afraid to announce who I was, so I was mute about any connection with the Faith, as was my companion, although he said that some of the local Baha'is that he knew were watching our every move. It was pretty uncomfortable at the time.

In spite of that, my most memorable experience came after leaving the Temple grounds, when I ventured to the side of the site in order to get a photo with some trees in the composition. From that vantage point, the smell of the adjacent slum was so overpowering that I shall never forget it. My thought was; how sad that such a beautiful building is so near the depths of human degradation.

I will say that my visit to India was overall very positive. I loved the Indian people, their gentleness and always-happy demeanor.

I hope that your Baha'i experience may in time become the happy and spiritually uplifting experience for you that it should be.

David

Brendan Cook said...

Priscilla,

I think this is my favorite post yet. It is of course very sad: I'm as sorry as anyone to hear that there is so little authentic community life at the lotus temple. One would have to very bitter towards the Baha'i Faith indeed to be glad that so few local Baha'is made use of the temple.

That being said, I enjoyed this post despite the gloomy subject, because you conveyed your feelings do well. We've all experienced disappointment and you give us the chance to be part of yours.

And even apart from this, I glad that you raised the issue of these shiny, showpiece temples. Baha'is need to consider this strategy of huge investments in buildings which, as you point out, people don't really need right now. The Arc Project was the first thing that ever gave me doubts about the direction of the contemporary Baha'i community. I was only seventeen and the adults around me dismissed my concerns, but I remember wondering whether we needed all this grandiose architecture, if there wasn't a more pressing human need.

Thanks so much for overcoming your physical difficulties to write this. I know a lot of people will benefit from reading this.

Brendan

Jonah said...

This is a fascinating post. I had the same idealized image of the Indian Baha'i community, but I never went to India so I never knew that it wasn't real. But even though what you said was unexpected, somehow it seems to fit with the Faith as a whole.

I get a sense that Baha'is are imitating the "major world religions". Other major religions have monumental architecture, so we should too. That's what major religions do.

Priscilla Gilman said...

David:

Thanks for reading my post and for telling your story. I’m very sorry you could not be open about your faith at the temple. There was a time when I would have been spooked by you and probably avoided you myself—not something I’m proud of. I hope the Haifan version of the Faith will someday drop this fear of other kinds of Baha’is. But it’s hard to see how that change could ever come about, and for it to really work the recognition would have to be mutual.

The moment you tell of —smelling the slums while photographing the temple—could be the centerpiece of its own essay. Thanks for sharing it here.


Brendan:

Thanks for your comments.

I was wonderfully, happily shocked when, a year ago, I discovered the array of authentic voices on-line discussing the Faith. It’s a very hopeful thing. I’m enjoying writing these essays, and, although they are critical and tell of sad things, I feel I gain something great in participating in the online Baha’i world in this way. What hope is there if we can’t say what we think, tell our tales, and learn of each other’s difficulties? I’m very glad you have told your story as you have. Maybe someday Feast and the American Baha’i and other primary Baha’i forums will be places where people speak of their doubts and struggles, and where diverse, distinctive voices are the norm—and where non-Baha’is are welcome to speak as well. In the meantime, I’m thankful for the ad hoc on-line community.


Jonah and anyone interested:

For a very different account of a trip to India read Charles Nolley’s report. I have much respect for Charles and the details of his account are fascinating. As I said in my post, maybe there are lots of Baha’is in rural areas.

But there has been something of a controversy or debate around the meaning of the large numbers of Indian Baha’is reported. William Garlington has written several academic articles on the Faith in India. He questions the meaning of those conversions in that these “converts” remain largely Hindu. Click here for one of Garlington’s articles.

No account gives the whole story, and I trust people will read mine with that awareness.


be well,

Priscilla

Anonymous said...

Hi Priscilla,

I enjoyed reading your article. I served in India at the House of Worship for six months, I think it must've just been after you had been to visit. I used to walk through or past the slums in the early mornings to say prayers at the temple while no one else was around. It was impossible to say prayers otherwise, the Temple echoed something chronic. I must admit that it never bothered me that the Temple was surrounded by the slums, but I suspect the slums might've become established after the Temple was built.

I had some of my most powerful spiritual experiences there meditating in the Temple. But it was also a very challenging time. The white haired man you mentioned was fired while I was there, unjustly we all felt because he was a very nice man who understood us volunteers. Apparently there were some powerful voices on the Indian NSA that didn't like him. He was replaced by an individual who was only used to dealing with local indians (even then very badly). During my time there, he had arguments with all of us on dress, teaching, you name it, and he at one point or another ordered each of us to go home. It became a joke amongst us volunteers after a while. He sacked the secretary and his assistant because he thought they were conspiring against him, and at one point all the cleaning staff threatened to go on strike. In the end I was quite happy to leave, although I was sad to leave the Temple.

You are quite right about the lack of the local Indian Baha'i community, I only knew of a few youth that came to help on the weekends.

You also mentioned about supposed Baha'i numbers. We found when we went teaching that it was very easy to get people to enrol. We even formed an LSA in one community. But it takes next to nothing to get them to all leave again. At the summer school I went to, some volunteers and I were sitting round on a bed playing cards during a gap between talks, and a rumour got out that we were having a wild sex orgy. An entire community of Indian Baha'is threatened to resign because of it.

Indians will quite happily add Jesus, Baha'u'llah, whoever, to their sizeable pantheon of Gods, but will carry on with their own traditions. It drives the Christian missionaries wild because most of the supposed converts won't denounce their own Hindu Gods.

Thys

Priscilla Gilman said...

Thys,

Thank you very much for posting your testimony.

Actually, I liked the man with white hair too; I’m sorry he was fired and that there was such a mess after he left. My difficulty with him came more, I think, from the dehumanizing influence of the plans, goals, and other “guidance” issuing from the Baha’i World Center than from him. He and I were both playing that bad game then.

Just to clarify, it is not the fact that the slums are in proximity to the temple that bothers me. That proximity does beg reconsideration, though, of the choice to build an unneeded, showpiece temple instead of responding to fundamental human suffering. Given that choice, I think it’s very good the slums are there. Let them spill over the wall and press against the temple steps—if they are still there at all; I know things are changing rapidly in India and I don’t know if those particular slums remain. But there is a lot of severe poverty in India regardless of whether or not it is next door to the temple.

Oh, and I’m glad to have your confirmation of my recollection that the temple acoustics were horrible.

peace,
Priscilla

Mrs.Love said...

Fascinating account of India. I had no idea and was likewise as you were prior to your visit in terms of understanding. I understand the temples to be built as a foundation for future social structure... something for the "helping to poor" etc to be built around and upon in the future. Without the structures it perhaps might be more difficult to provide - in the future. Again, I think our expectations for the Faith to be immensely premature. However, I must say that the Mormons, who have a similar life span to the Bahai Faith, have a strong social structure and way of giving back to their members. That said, they require tithing and are quite aggressive about it - whereas Bahais can only give to the fund and are not pressured in such ways - as is my experience. Reminded of the duty, yes, but not called out and put to the mat if they don't as I've seen done in other faiths. Having a lot of money helps to be able to help. Just sayin'... I would love a spy glass into the future to see what's going on in 500 years. I like your analogy of the Faith being like teenagers amongst the elder faiths of the world. I see all this floundering and over structure and under structure etc etc as just that - adolescence. In fact, I've heard the UHJ (If I recall correctly) refer to the Faith being in it's adolescence now. So it makes sense it would be acting out "I can do it, I don't need you to tell me what to do, I know it all" in a sense would be a natural part of the growth process. Hmmm.... A spy glass into the future... that would be cool.

Anonymous said...

I'm a non Bahai and visted the Lotus Temple last year on vacation. It is starting to look dated. Perhaps when it was first built, it was more impressive, but the materials used and general vibe does place it in the 1980's. The shape is beautiful from a distance though. The interior doesn't feel any more special that most traditional churches. Anyways, just my 2 cents. I was introduced to the faith a few years ago and doubted it's claims. Visiting the temple in India only confirmed what I already believe about the faith. What a shame that religion can cause such a waste of resources.

BAHAI1844 said...

Do I get to have the newest post? What an epiphany! I guess I try to regard my association with the Faith as tenuous - and since being excused from meetings a while ago, have come to really appreciate one thing - the things you DO have that all lead to the Triumph of the Cause. I drive a school bus now, after forsaking my home, possessions, etc. even going on pilgrimage, and finding myself "alone" in rural Washington, felt compelled to actually be baptized at the hands of LDS missionaries. It continues to be a blessing, and a very consistent venue to participate AND PROPAGATE the Cause of God. (if you're a "bad-Baha'i - you should turn yourself in to a church!! lol) I can't say "I have a missionary position in the Faith" - because there is "no group to bring you to" in the Cause - but we did do it doggy-style from time to time... lol Unfortunately, my significant other will not heed the guidance of the Faith an is 7 months pregnant in the psychiactric ward at UW Medicine.. I love her dearly! Keep track of your friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers! Be sure to mention the Faith - or some teaching - wherever you go!! For example - if there is a fine to be paid for adultery to the Universal House of Justice - does that mean Non-Baha'i's can contribute to the Fund??? Praise Baha'u'llah! What Genius!! We Can SUCCEED IN THIS ENTERPRISE!!! LOVE, z.Lightcap@gmail.com